Duke basketball’s preseason hype-up event, known as Countdown to Craziness, seemed to be more of a look back than forward. The highlight of the event was the revealing of Duke’s fifth National Championship banner and the loudest cheers came when the jumbotron showed clips from the Blue Devils’ title game win against Wisconsin earlier this year. Obviously, given the expectations and the shadow of a national championship, this year’s squad will face some undeserved pressure.
With the youth of this team, many are concerned that this pressure may lead to an untimely and early end to the season in March and Countdown to Craziness did little to assuage those fears. Brandon Ingram looked lost, Chase Jeter and Anton Vrankovic got bullied in the paint by Marshall Plumlee (a pattern that’s likely to repeat given the relative lack of bulk on the freshmen bigs), and while Derryck Thornton razzled and dazzled with his handles, it seemed that the fancy dribbling only ended in turnovers. The brightest spot was a toss-up between the impassioned defense by Matt Jones and the smooth stroke of freshman sharpshooter Luke Kennard. Even through the early struggles there was a sense that the talent was definitely there but it will take a while for the team to mesh and find their roles.
Fast forward two weeks to Duke’s home opener exhibition against Florida Southern. As expected, the Blue Devils won, although not quite as easily as fans would have liked (the final margin of 44 fails to reveal the closeness of the first half). The game’s box score revealed some of the surprises of the night such as a starting lineup with no true point guard. Big man Amile Jefferson led the team in assists, and Derryck Thornton showed that he won’t be a pass-only point guard by leading the team in scoring thanks to 4-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc. Even more impressive than Thornton’s shooting was his lack of turnovers. Meanwhile, Kennard looked a little out of rhythm with his shot and Chase Jeter didn’t see as much time as a lauded recruit might expect. The latter may be due to the stacked frontcourt with returners Jefferson and Plumlee starting, and freshmen Jeter and Antonio Vrankovic competing with Sean Obi for minutes off the bench.
If anything, these two showcases raised more questions about the lineup Coach K will decide to go with and what the roles will be for each player. Expecting exhibitions to be completely eye-opening is a little overly hopeful and hopefully the team will find its grove over the first month of non conference play, just in time for the December 2nd marquee matchup against the Indiana Hoosiers.
Box Score Information from goduke.com