I don’t think any true Duke fan or enthusiast can look back on this season and not smile, sure it ended before we all wanted it to end but none of those so-called experts had Duke where Duke ended up. All year-long the so-called professionals said Duke wasn’t good enough. They questioned everything about this team, never truly giving them the credit they deserved. To make it to the Elite Eight with the schedule, and the injuries that this team had and overcame? It was a good year, it was a damn good year.
Ok the loss to Louisvilleâ€¦ I thought about going deep into the numbers to analyze this or that but I don’t want to. I’m just going to do it a different way. We played Louisville pretty darn good for more than half of the game, but I think this team just ran out of gas while the Cardinals conversely kept their foot on it. Louisville played like a team of destiny and Duke played like a team that was scared to lose. It’s hard to really quantify or qualify the effect of Kevin Wares injury on the psyche of his team but I think it definitely gave the Cardinals an emotional edge and there is nothing wrong with that. Duke did not match the level of intensity displayed by Louisville and frankly they were the better team on Sunday. Duke would need a much better effort on both ends of the floor to keep up with Louisville and unfortunately for us Duke fans that did not happen.
This shouldn’t be a spring and summer of discontent for Duke fans. There is no need to dwell on what could have been, but rather we should marvel at how Duke began this season: how they consistently overachieved. How this team adjusted and overcame injury is something to be proud of as a Duke fan. We were treated with moment after moment of memorable performances. Most times as Duke fans, we were treated to some unbelievable highs and sometimes, we had to endure some tough losses. I for one am thankful for the roller coaster of emotion that we all took together, and I’m thankful for the seniors and supporting cast of Duke players that won and lost with dignity and grace. It’s sad to see a season end, but remembering that all the teams in the tournament but one will end their season with a loss and losing to the eventual national champions is not a bad way to go out.
It’s a luxury we have as Duke fans to consider a season like this a “disappointing season” and it speaks to the level of consistency that the coaches and players have maintained through class after class, year after year. Not many other programs can speak and relate to such lofty standards and goals. I certainly wish we could have won a few more games, but I am extremely happy to have watched and covered this team and honestly cannot wait for next season to start.
How can you not love Seth Curry? This kid has quietly put tougher an outstanding career. When you have a brother like Steph Curry, and the shadow he cast in college basketball, it seems nearly impossible to live up to that standard. You have to give credit to Seth for not only living up to the Curry name, but doing it at a high-profile school, doing it playing with a target on his back each and every game, and doing it with a stress fracture and working his ass off to get himself on the court each and every game. That alone deserves a standing ovation. So congrats to Seth Curry on an amazing career.
I’ve enjoyed watching the development of Mason Plumlee over the years. Some will say he did not live up to projections and expectations, but I wholeheartedly disagree. There is probably nothing harder to do than to lead. Plumlee did that with this Duke team and had good games, great games, and the occasional not-so-great games. Mason never shied away from taking the blame for a loss, he was always willing to make note of his own mistakes or bad plays, but for the most part, he gave us some fantastic moments of basketball. There have been some amazing big men to come out of Duke over the years, but Mason/s career will go down as one of the most storied and should blaze a trail for big men coming to Duke to live up to. Thanks to Mason for being that man in the middle that Duke needed.
Ryan Kelly went through a lot this season, and the hearts of the Duke faithful stayed with him through it all. With Duke on a roll, Kelly would go down with a severe foot injury. Duke would have to adjust, and Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston would step up in Kelly’s stead and hold down the fort. When Kelly did return, it was fireworks in Cameron he nearly single-handedly avenged Dukes defeat at the hands on the Miami Hurricanes. He would put together one of the greatest individual effort a Duke player has ever had. Kelly would struggle down the stretch to get himself into game shape, and he would contribute what and when he could, but the fact that Kelly would play at all was a miracle and kudos have to be given to the Duke medical staff and trainers as well as Kelly for putting in hard work.
The future for Duke is bright and, despite every notable basketball pundit already anointing Kentucky the national champions for 2014, there are still games to be played. Duke will return a lot next year and there is a lot coming in. In the back-court, Duke will return Quinn Cook as the starter in the point guard role. Cook had moments of brilliance this season, and some not-so-great moments, but with last year’s action limited due to injury, this was essentially Cook’s freshman year in terms of development. I look for a huge jump in Cook’s production. Finding the middle ground between being a scoring and distributing guard is where Cook will look to improve. Cook has shown the ability to do both and do it with aplomb. Cook has the ability to break down his defender, get to the rim, and knock down the outside shot. Cook can also be an assist machine and showed that in games this year. Cook will be the on-court leader for Duke, and I look forward to big things out of him in his junior year. Tyler Thornton will return as the first man off the bench for Duke at the point. Thornton is the defensive leader of this team, he sets the tone and has become the bulldog for Duke, willing and able to give up his body against bigger players. Thornton has also made strides and improvements in his offensive game: he has improved his outside shooting and has become much better at running the offense for Duke. While not as dynamic a ball handler as Cook, he has become a steadying presence and gives Duke stability should Cook get into foul trouble or have an off night.
Where Duke will be loaded is the 2 guard spot. With Seth Curry departing, the conventional wisdom is that the starting spot will be a battle between Rasheed Sulaimon, Rodney Hood, and returning red shirt senior Andre Dawkins. Rasheed Sulaimon got the bulk of the starts alongside Seth Curry and Quinn Cook, so it is very reasonable to assume Duke will employ a 3 guard lineup again this year. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Rasheed doesn’t start with how he performed in his freshman season. Sulaimon had his ups and down in his first year, but showed a very real talent for shooting beyond the arc but also getting into the middle of the floor for mid-range jumpshots. Improvements in strength and consistency are expected from Rasheed in his second year. Andre Dawkins is a lights-out shooter but missed all of this year. Hood is also a great shooter, but has a size advantage over Dawkins and is a better ball handler. It remains to be seen how Dawkins’ game has evolved. Andre has the ability to finish strong at the rim and an improved ability off the bounce would serve him well. Hood has had the added advantage of practicing with the team this year and learning schemes and the ins and outs of Duke offense. The x-factor at shooting guard is freshman Matt Jones. Another sharpshooter in the rotation gives Duke real depth and Jones comes to Durham as not just a shooter but a scorer on the high school level. Jones has added more wrinkles to his game inside the arc but as a freshman it will be interesting to see how those added facets translate on the college level. At worst, Jones will be an understudy to 3 great players and will benefit from covering both in practice. His game will grow immediately.
It is hard to predict how Duke will use its multitude of small forwards as, size wise, they do not possess a player that has the typical build of a power forward a la Mason Plumlee. Dynamic freshman Jabari Parker will look to leave his mark on the scoring column. Boasting the most complete game in the country as a freshman, Parker should be able to score from anywhere on the floor for Duke. Always playing measured and under control, Duke will look for the 6’9″ Parker to develop that killer instinct. That stretch 4 roll for Duke is Jabari’s to take with the graduation of Ryan Kelly, but there are several other players that will vie for minutes at that spot. It may make sense for Duke to utilize Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston in the power forward spots for a lot for more depth as Parker and Alex Murphy put in work at the small forward position. Murphy has a game similar to Kelly’s in that he has the size to make an impact in the paint but will most likely take his game mid-range and outward. Murphy is capable of getting a step on players his size and is a danger to get to the rim and finish at any time, that is where his game may be a step above Ryan Kelly (not saying he’s better, just more explosive). I do not expect the sparse minutes for Murphy to continue next season as he is too talented to languish on the bench.
Amile Jefferson filled in admirably when Ryan Kelly went out with injury, he showed a unique ability to worm his way into good rebounding position and to score over players with a weight and strength advantage. There is no question that Jefferson will keep his game in the low-post and can make a living on stick-backs and post moves if he adds some bulk and polishing in the off-season. He may move to the power forward spot by default and what he gives up in weight, he will make up for with craftiness, speed, and determination. Josh Hairston is a much maligned player for Duke and most of it is undeserved. As fans, we are used to seeing players that come into Duke be stars and score a lot of points and what we sometimes forget to realize that if it wasn’t for players like Josh or Brian Zoubek or Lance Thomas, our stars would never shine. While not a scorer, Hairston does what he is asked to do by the coaching staff and leads the team in charges taken. He also pulled down key rebounds and has gotten himself in better shape in his junior year. Hairston’s role may change again with the impending transition in the roster: he may be asked to be more a low-post rebounder and banger and spell Amile Jefferson at the power forward spot. The real unknown is Semi Ojeleye. He looks to be a great all-around player, but it is hard to judge his skill level as there isn’t much to go on against great competition. What is known about Semi is that he has great basketball IQ and possesses great physical attributes. He’s a big, strong kid who can play above the rim and yet can handle the ball sufficiently for a tweener. He is somewhere between a big 2 guard and a small forward, but it remains to be seen how Duke will utilize his skill set. Duke will need rebounding and Semi looks to be able to get up and looks physically ready to compete against ACC competition.
Lastly for Duke, Marshall Plumlee. He is an enigma to most Duke fans, me included. There were stories in the preseason of MP3 being in the top 6 or 7 players on the team, but we never got to see that materialize as Plumlee would break his foot early on. It’s hard to say if the injury was the cause of the setback, or if the word coming out of practices was a bit exaggerated. In any event, Plumlee was never able to contribute much this year, but the off-season tends to show who wants it and Plumlee has the chance to get bigger, stronger, and work on his game, perhaps attend a big man camp like brother Mason. Being a legit 6’11” to 7’0″ gives you an instant advantage if you can stay on the floor and out of foul trouble, defend, and not be a liability on either end of the floor. Plumlee is one of may unknowns for next year’s squad; another is whether Duke will find a legitimate power forward via a graduated senior, JUCO, or transfer. Duke’s only hole would be a banger inside, a space eater and rebounder and word is Duke is looking to add that for next year’s team. As of this article Duke had expressed interest in Memphis transfer Tarik Black who goes 6’9″, 260 pounds. Despite poor numbers this past year at Memphis, he could be a game changer for Duke should they get a commitment. Black would allow the small forward-minded Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson to stick with their natural positions. It’s hard to say whether Duke has a legitimate shot at the big man with teams like Miami, Kansas, FSU, and over 20 other schools in the mix. Hopefully Duke’s basketball pedigree, the way it featured Mason Plumlee, and the availability of minutes will lure the big man to Durham.