The 2017-18 basketball season got far more interesting in early December.
The Duke Blue Devils looked to be the odds-on favorite to storm their way to the NCAA title. Duke was No. 1 in the nation and cruising along, with the country’s best player, and a supporting cast that had swept up virtually all of the weekly awards in the country’s best conference.
Then Duke opened the ACC season at Boston College, and the sport got a little bit of parity. The Eagles burned up the nets from 3-point range and knocked off the Blue Devils in the ACC opener.
That means this will be the fifth straight year that Duke has been .500 or worse at some point in the ACC season, a remarkable streak for a team that’s picked up conference and national titles over that span while being a fixture near the top of the Top 25. Duke opened 2-2 in 2013-14 and 2014-15, 4-4 in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Duke is still the pick for the NSJ 2018 Team of the Year. It’s just not the landslide it seemed like it would be a couple weeks ago.
There are plenty of reasons to think that Duke is still the team to beat this college season. Marvin Bagley III is averaging 21.3 points and 11.3 rebounds and, off day against Boston College excepted, hasn’t had a game this year where he wasn’t the best player on the court.
Bagley’s incredible start to the year has overshadowed the rest of the freshman class, which was crowned as the nation’s best when it signed as recruits and hasn’t done anything to show that honor was undeserved.
Wendell Carter Jr. is a force in the paint, and he’s shown a willingness to take the physical pounding underneath not common in freshman players. He’s close to averaging a double-double and had six blocked shots in a game earlier this season.
Point guard Trevon Duval has hit double-digits in assists three times this season and also recorded six steals in a game. He’s also a threat to call his own number and score on the drive. He’s not the threat from outside that many expected.
Shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. has been steady but not spectacular for most of the season, giving the team a reliable outside threat, but also flashing the ability to drive and score. He exploded for 25 points and six 3-pointers in the Boston College loss and could emerge as one of the team’s go-to guys as the year goes on.
While the freshmen form the core of this year’s team, the Blue Devils also have one of the ACC’s top senior players in Grayson Allen. After two years of drama, Allen has behaved himself on court this year and shown a willingness to step aside and let Bagley star, a rarity among established veteran players. It brings back memories of a similar selflessness shown by Quinn Cook during Duke’s run to the 2015 NCAA title, in Allen’s freshman year.
While Allen may not be grabbing as many headlines, he’s still averaging 17.2 points and 4.4 assists and knocking down 3-pointers at a .430 rate.
Unlike many seasons, Duke also has a reliable bench this year, which should allow the Blue Devils to survive foul trouble or injury. Sophomore Javin DeLaurier has been a rebounding force inside. Freshman point guard Jordan Goldwire has played regularly and can run the team in Duval’s absence. Center Marques Bolden, the only holdover from last year’s snakebit freshman class, can give the team a presence inside off the bench as well. Flashy freshman Alex O’Connell can drive, dunk and defend, allowing Duke to go nine deep for the first time in recent memory.
Things aren’t all rosy. Duke has shown its youth on defense, as the team struggled to shut down foes, particularly on the perimeter. The team also tends to coast from time to time, confident it can flip the switch whenever it wants. Duke trailed in all three PK80 games at the half, and the comebacks against Texas and Florida may have led to the slow start against Boston College.
The team is very young, and the freshman wall might cause the team to pick up a few more unexpected losses. Barring a serious outbreak of injuries, however, Duke should be hitting on all cylinders in March. The team has the look of some of Coach K’s special ones, which could be very bad news for the rest of the country.
Others considered: UNC men’s basketball, Carolina Panthers