After a rather tumultuous regular season in the NCAA, March Madness has finally arrived. This has been one of the most unpredictable college basketball seasons in recent memory, with no single team that stands out as the best in the country. And yet, Duke may be the team with the most talent in the country.
The Blue Devils were slotted with the no. 2 seed in the Midwest region, but will have to contend with the prospects of facing the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks as well as the Michigan State Spartans, who garnered the no. 3 seed. Duke beat Michigan State in an early season matchup during the Champions Classic back in November, but both teams have gone through their own series of peaks and valleys in the past four months.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski‘s team is coming off a loss to North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament to wrap up a scintillating trilogy, but the Blue Devils showed a tremendous amount of fight in climbing back from a 16-point deficit before ultimately falling to the Tar Heels. However, that first taste of postseason play should prove invaluable to a coach K team that is built on the strength of their freshman players, rather than depth.
But how should Duke be analyzed as a unit heading into the tournament? As has been alluded to, Krzyzewski seems to rely almost exclusively on a seven man rotation. That shortage in depth has put a consistent strain on the likes of Marvin Bagley III and in particular Grayson Allen as the lone senior on the roster. And indeed, Duke’s success seems to have a direct correlation with the performance of those two players.
Bagley put up a monstrous performance of 33 points and 17 rebounds in a quarterfinal win over Notre Dame, but was limited to just 13 field goal attempts in the loss to North Carolina (although he still poured in 19 points on an efficient 7-13 shooting). Given the relative lack of perimeter shooters for Duke, teams have seemed content with packing the paint to prevent Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr. from getting position.
And that’s where Allen’s performance will be crucial in determining how far Duke goes in March. Krzyzewski’s decision to move Allen to the point and give him control of the perimeter has seemed to pay dividends at the end of the regular season, despite a couple of losses at Virginia Tech and against the Tar Heels on a neutral court. If he can control the ball and give Duke added perimeter shooting along with his ability to distribute the ball as a playmaker, he should be a boon for the Blue Devils as they tackle the best of the Midwest region.
However, the most important X-factor may be freshman point guard Trevon Duval. When he stays within his game, Duval has a knack as one of the best finishers in college basketball, and his court vision is tremendous. But he has been relatively reckless with the ball, and teams are willing to concede the three-point shot when the ball is in his hands. Duval is going to have to play signifiant minutes as a starter during this tournament, and his discipline on both sides of the ball will be absolutely critical to the Blue Devils’ championship hopes.
Wendell Carter Jr. has played excellent basketball for the last month while managing to avoid foul trouble, and Gary Trent Jr. remains about as mercurial on the offensive end as he has all season long. But if Duke hopes to raise their sixth championship banner in April, they will need to establish Bagley, Allen and Duval as focal points.