Duke’s biggest non-conference games to this point include Michigan State, at a neutral site, and Wisconsin, on the road in Madison. The Blue Devils will go on the road one last time for a non-conference game on January 25th to play #15 St. Johns.
First off, the single most significant takeaway from Duke’s non-conference play is how well this year’s team has come to play together. Between the leadership on the court of Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson and the potential of freshmen such as Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow every player knows their role extremely well. Although the team as a whole might lean heavily on Okafor’s play, defensively and offensively, in the post no player oversteps the boundaries of their role and tries to do too much. In addition, this Duke team is as unselfish as any in recent years, always making the extra pass to find the open man. What really allows for this is the fact that those receiving the most playing team in the rotation are all extremely talented individually. As a result Coach K and his players can trust that whomever it is that has an open look at the basket is more than capable to take a shot opposed to last year where Duke’s chances of winning a game rested on Jabari Parker’s ability to single handedly carry the team.
Also, a major factor in Duke’s high level of play so far is how fast this group of freshmen has adapted to the college level. Heading into the Wisconsin game many believed Duke’s freshmen would not be able to handle the intensity of an away game at the Kohl Center and that they did not have the experience necessary to play at the same level of Wisconsin, then ranked second in the country. Although the young Blue Devils took control of the game almost from tip-off and defeated the Badgers 80-70 while Quinn Cook contributed twenty-two points, six rebounds, and four assists. Since this victory Duke has held the number two ranking in the AP and USA Today polls.
The players that have really jumped off the page to this point have been senior point guard Quinn Cook and freshman center Jahlil Okafor. Since Cook arrived in Durham as a freshman his potential at the point guard position has been more than evident as he has steadily progressed over the past three years. Yet Cook took the biggest of those steps entering this season as he was named co-captain with his fellow upper classmen Amile Jefferson. So far this season Cook has looked as good as any other point guard in the nation between his career high statistics and his leadership on and off the floor. Cook has set the tone for Duke by controlling the game’s tempo tremendously along with initiating Duke’s unselfish play on offense. Despite the talent of Duke’s freshmen at the core of Duke’s success is Quinn Cook’s leadership and basketball IQ.
All in all, although Duke is yet to lose a game there are still some concerns as the head into ACC play and the most difficult part of their schedule. The first and foremost of these is Duke’s short bench and a specific lack of depth at the positions of power forward and center. With the exception of Jahlil Okafor and Amile Jefferson the only other big man that has received significant playing time is Marshall Plumlee, although nobody can get too excited over his averages of 3.0 points and 2.8 rebounds per game. Even though Coach K normally shortens his rotation in conference play he does not have much to shorten as he already has a rotation of seven to eight players with really only a core group of six players getting the bulk of the playing time. Also, given how much Duke relies on Okafor to pose a threat offensively and to anchor down the defense in the paint, if he were to get into foul trouble Duke’s chances against a formidable opponent could diminish juristically.
Another big issue Duke will likely be forced to deal with is rebounding. Out of Duke’s average of 25.7 rebounds per game 17.2 of which, on average, come from Jahlil Okafor and Amile Jefferson. The team’s third best rebounder, statistically, is freshman Justise Winslow who averages 4.5 rebounds per game. Although Winslow has been successful thus far playing on wing and it is safe to assume he will not be asked to bang with the big men down low. If Duke is going to go all the way at some point they will be forced to look towards Plumlee and hope he can provide significant assistance on the boards to lighten the burden currently concentrated on Okafor and Jefferson.
Key Upcoming Matchups
January 17th: at #5 Louisville
January 25th: at #15 St. Johns
January 28th: at #14 Notre Dame
January 31st: at #3 Virginia
February 7th: vs. Notre Dame
February 19th: vs. North Carolina
March 7th: at North Carolina