Five Questions for Duke Basketball Heading into 2010

Scheyer Singler ThomasIt is New Years Day and Duke fans are asking, “How far can this team go in 2010?” Thus far Duke has looked like a solid team capable of competing to win the ACC regular season and defending the ACC Championship they won in Atlanta last March. Advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament is a realistic possibility.

The ACC regular season is set to start as Duke (11-1) hosts Clemson (12-2) on Sunday evening in a 7:45 pm contest. Duke is simultaneously a very experienced team and a young team still developing. Five upper classmen on the roster have a combined 280 starts, while three freshmen and a sophomore are all playing significant minutes in the rotation. How these two opposite elements meld is an important factor to how good the Blue Devils can become.

So the jury is still out on how good Duke can be in 2010. There are many questions remaining to be answered before it is known whether this squad can become the 11th Mike Krzyzewski coached Duke team to compete in the Final Four. The five questions discussed below are a good start for analyzing the 2009-10 Blue Devils’ chances of advancing to Indianapolis.

How dominant can S Cubed be during the ACC season?

Kyle Singler started the season as a legitimate candidate to earn All America honors. Jon Scheyer has been playing like an ACC Player-of-the-Year Candidate. And Nolan Smith appears to have made the performance jump everyone expected him to make last season. These three players, S Cubed, form the core of the 2009-10 Duke Blue Devils and in order for the Blue Devils to win the ACC and develop into a legitimate Final Four contender all three must bring their strengths onto the court.

Singler, at 6’8”, is a match-up nightmare at small forward for most teams. He is bigger and more athletic than the typical small forward in the college game. Singler has the ability to place the team on his back and carry them. His 28 points in the loss to Wisconsin is a good example even though the end result came up short. In 2010, the requirement to step-up and carry Duke to victory is going to present itself to Singler more than once and the Blue Devils will need him to respond in order to achieve their potential.

Scheyer values the basketball. With an assists to turnover ratio of 5.5, and an 18.6 points per game scoring average, he is a tremendous asset at point guard. After Scheyer scored 36 points against his team, Gardner-Webb Head Coach Rick Scruggs stated, “He was unbelievable. Anybody that says there’s any weakness is out of their minds. He shot it, he controlled the game, he doesn’t turn the ball over. He does everything you could ask of him at his position.”

Smith is the player Duke will rely upon to contain an opponent’s speedy guard. Smith is currently the team’s second leading scorer at 18 points per game so he is obviously an important offensive player. However, defense is where Duke needs Smith to standout. Limiting dribble penetration, pressuring the ball, and creating perimeter turnovers that lead to transition opportunities will be key to Duke winning big in 2010.

Singler, Scheyer, and Smith are the core of this year’s Duke Blue Devils and all three must be consistent throughout the season in order for Duke to achieve their maximum potential. In most games, Duke will be okay as long as two of the three show up with their “A” game, but against the crème de la crème all three will need to be clicking.

How good is the defense?

Duke held Gonzaga to 41 points on December 19th. Gonzaga entered the game as the #15 ranked team in the nation averaging 79 points per game. Back on November 27th, Duke held #13 Connecticut to a season low 59 points. In the other nine games they’ve played, Connecticut has averaged 75 points. Were these performances an aberration or is Duke capable of consistently shutting down Top 25 offenses?

Duke is a big, physical team inside. Gonzaga Coach Mark Few stated, “Their physical play bothered us as far as finishing shots around the rim.” Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun stated, “Duke physically handled us.” Duke is averaging 5.7 blocked shots per game with sophomore Miles Plumlee leading the way with 1.3 blocks per game.

Versatility is another defensive characteristic this season. Senior forward Lance Thomas has the ability to defend every position and Coach Krzyzewski relies upon him to tackle the tough assignments. Coach Krzyzewski’s comments after the Gonzaga game included, “Lance played a great game today. The kid Harris, I think he is a really good player, and Lance did a great job on him.”

Through the first 12 games of the season, Duke has a +8.5 rebounding advantage. Basketball is a game where every possession is important and this Duke team denies opponents second chance points by aggressively controlling the boards.

Can Brian Zoubek continue to be a legitimate center during the ACC season?

Zoubek has been playing very solid basketball over Duke’s first 12 games. He is a rebounding machine averaging 7.7 rebounds per game in only 16.7 minutes of playing time. That equates to 18.4 rebounds per 40 minutes of playing time. With the start of the ACC season, the level of competition is going to increase and Zoubek must step up his game and continue to dominate the glass when on the court.

Duke is deep in the frontcourt with four players 6’10” or taller but three of the four are underclassmen. Senior Zoubek must be play up to the level of his experience and be a steady influence upon young big men Miles and Mason Plumlee. If Duke is to develop into a team capable of advancing to Indianapolis, Zoubek must remain solid as the competition stiffens because the Blue Devils need his leadership.

Coach Krzyzewski recently commented, when discussing the defense, “The kid who really hasn’t gotten much attention for us, is Zoubek. Brian has had a hell of a year so far.” Blue Devil fans desire to hear the coach make similar statements after big ACC conference games.

Can the bench players remain viable options?

All nine scholarship players, on Duke’s roster are averaging double digit minutes of playing time. The issue is Duke has only nine scholarship players so all nine must continue to improve and perform as the season advances. This Duke team is vulnerable to injury and can be hurt by a single player suffering a lapse of confidence. Duke needs all nine players contributing in order to ensure maximum team performance from now until late March.

How high is Andre Dawkins’ ceiling as a freshman?

We already talked about the bench players, but this question is a bit different. Duke needs an explosive fourth offensive option against top notch opponents. Is Andre Dawkins the guy? Or has Dawkins already played the best games of his freshman season? Once again, this is about tougher competition. Dawkins has shined in early season games averaging 9.8 points with double digit performances in five games including 11 points against Connecticut and 12 against Wisconsin with a season high of 20 points against Radford. The question is will Dawkins continue to be a consistent scorer in games against Clemson, Maryland, Florida State, North Carolina, and into the post season?

Duke is known for being a prolific 3-point shooting team and Dawkins is a guy who has the ability to stretch defenses past their comfort zone. Combining big, physical inside play with accurate outside shooting is a lethal formula so Duke needs Dawkins knocking down 3-pointers in 2010 like he did over the first 12 games of the schedule.

The 2009-10 Duke Blue Devils can become a legitimate Final Four contender with continued development as a team, and if the ball bounces their way a couple of times in key situations that are sure to arise. The factor promoting the most optimism in Durham this season is that this Duke team appears to be a squad, which will be much stronger and talented in March than in it was during November and December, and that is very bad news for the teams seeded in the same regional as Duke come March.