This year’s Duke Blue Devils team has the potential to be a Final Four team, but do they have enough of an interior presence to win the national title?
We learned a lot about Duke in their 94-83 loss to Kansas the other night. For one, this is the most athletic team Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has had in recent memory. They are led by do-it-all freshman Jabari Parker, who was extremely impressive in the loss to Kansas, scoring 27 points to go along with nine rebounds. Transfer Rodney Hood is a big guard who can knock down shots from all over the court. Guards Quinn Cook and Tyler Thorton are fast guards who can push the tempo as well as annoy opposing guards for 94 feet up the court. Rasheed Sulaimon coming off the bench is another versatile player who can get up and down the court. Since they lack size, Duke is going to go small a lot and try to get out and run.
However, we also learned low-post play is going to be a struggle throughout the season. Sophomore Amile Jefferson started at center against Kansas and from the box score had a productive game. He was Duke’s second leading scorer with 17 points on 7-9 shooting. Although, he was solid on offense, Jefferson was abused on defense as well as the glass. Jefferson only had two rebounds in 26 minutes of play. When your starting center is rebounding at that rate, you are going to get out-rebounded by 15, like they did against Kansas, every single time. Teams that win the rebounding battle often win the game. This could hinder this Duke squad throughout the year.
Jefferson was matched up against Kansas’ Perry Ellis for the majority of the game and really struggled. Ellis used his strength as well as his ability to score off the pick n’ roll to abuse Jefferson. Ellis ended up with 24 points along with nine rebounds on 9-13 shooting. Duke will continue to get dominated by skilled bigs because of their lack of interior depth. Parker started at the four and because of his NBA-ready body will be able to guard a lot of the fours he faces, but a guy like Ellis, Duke just has no one to stop him.
The problem for Krzyzewski is that when he looks down the bench for a replacement, his choices are limited. His options are Marshall Plumlee, Josh Hairston, and Alex Murphy. Those three guys combined for two points and zero rebounds in 15 minutes of play Tuesday night against Kansas. None of those guys are legit enough bigs to go out and post a double-double or defend an all-conference center. This forces Duke to go small, which will allow them to run a lot of teams out of the gym, but with a team like Kansas and teams they could potentially face late in the NCAA tournament who have skilled bigs that can keep up with the fast tempo, the Blue Devils are in trouble. Krzyzewski will consistently be tinkering with lineups in order to solve this concern, but they may just have to play small and hope for the best.
The old saying in college basketball is that, “guards win in March,” which is very true. You must have good guards to capture the national championship, but if you cannot defend down low or rebound your guard play does not matter. Can Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee, and Josh Hairston be good enough down low to allow Duke to win the National Championship this year? I have my concerns.