A Season on the Brink?


For Duke fans, happiness has been a transient emotion for several months.

The joys of an ACC title and return to the Sweet 16 were spoiled by a painful defeat to a hungry Villanova squad. In spite of a fervent campaign to keep him for a fourth year, Gerald Henderson entered the NBA draft. The recruitment of star point guard John Wall ended in bitterness when the future lottery pick signed with the Kentucky Wildcats. Most recently, due to tragic and unforeseen circumstances, Elliot Williams – the program’s most promising underclassman – transferred to the University of Memphis to be closer to his family.

Ironically, none of these events are mystifying—each loss and disappointment has a valid explanation. The only appropriate reaction is a sigh of disbelief and a look towards the coming season. Nonetheless, many Blue Devils have already started looking ahead to 2010-11, while writing the upcoming season off as the product of a series of unfortunate events.

To be certain, the departures of Henderson and Williams, coupled with the graduation of Greg Paulus, Marty Pocius, and Dave McClure, have left the coaching staff with a daunting challenge: to contend in a guard-driven league with only two scholarship guards. In an interview with The Chronicle, former great and current assistant Chris Collins explains:

“Coming into the year I would think that Jon, Nolan and Kyle would be the starters there based on experience and talent and that they’ve been starters. Obviously we will need Jordan to be in the position to be a ball-handler to give us some minutes off the bench…I think also that guys like Lance Thomas and Kelly, Mason and Plumlee, those guys will have to help us with ball-handling. Lance especially will have to be able to guard other teams’ wing players, really the way we’ve defended the last couple of years with a lot of switching…. More defensively, you’ll see that Lance and Kyle have to guard more perimeter guys and then there’s no question that Jon and Nolan will have to be in the kind of shape to log a lot of minutes and take a lot of our ball-handling responsibilities and our guard duties.”

Gone are the days when Nolan deferred to Greg on the perimeter, or looked towards a streaking Henderson on the fast break. Nolan, who has been playing in a summer league in his native D.C., will have to be a more prolific scorer. Jon has shown the ability to play point guard, and will be called upon even more this season to conduct the offense.

However, neither guard will be challenged as much as Kyle Singler.

The brilliant junior’s versatile game will be stretched next year. He will be asked to defend quicker guards—he showed that ability shutting down a red-hot Jimmy Baron in last season’s nail-biter against Rhode Island. His improved perimeter jumper will be needed more than in his first two seasons. However, Kyle will have to adapt to being the focal point of the opponent’s defense every night. He is the one recognized star on next year’s team, and his skills, toughness, and leadership will help determine how far this team goes.

Beyond the performance of individual players, a noted sea change in strategy must be implemented next year. Since the departure of All-American Shelden Williams, Duke has sustained a high number of wins without a dominant big man. We have relied on guards to carry our team, and it has served us well. This year will be different. For the first time in several years, our big men outnumber our guards. This means several new changes in strategy:

  • Zone defense. It has been taboo in Cameron during K’s tenure, but a lack of perimeter quickness means that a zone may be the only option.
  • Slow the pace. We have a much, much better chance at winning games playing in the half-court instead of trying to keep up with quicker teams. We will win more games in the 60s and 70s than in the 80s and above.
  • Ryan Kelly must deliver. Ryan won the McDonald’s All-American 3-point shooting contest, and will have to shoot well while using his length and deceptive quickness around the basket.
  • Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek have to be the post’s anchor. As seniors, it’s up to Lance and Z to direct traffic and teach the younger guys their roles in the offense. Their numbers improved last season, but they will have to score and rebound more effectively.
  • The Plumlee brothers must be interchangeable. Although Mason is higher rated coming out of high school, Miles showed flashes of his talent this past season. They have similar builds and are both competent athletes. We can’t afford to lose steam when substituting one for the other.

As a premiere program in college basketball, Duke’s goal each season is to win championships. This next season the ACC will be weaker than usual. Even with a depleted roster and a crop of unproven players, Duke can contend for another conference title. Indeed, the new-look Blue Devils will buck the trend of guard-led teams of the 2000s. Coach K enters his 30th season at the helm—he will have one of the most difficult coaching jobs since the mid-1990s.  The development of the young players on this team will help determine our role in the national picture for the next four years.

College basketball, like history, is cyclical. While next season may not promise a Final Four, Duke basketball is on its way back to the top.

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