By Oliver Mauntel
After reeling in the top recruiting class for the class of 2017, the Blue Devils entered the 2017-18 season with sky-high expectations. Some wondered, including myself, who can beat these guys? After all, they have six former 5-star recruits, three former 4-stars, and arguably the best basketball coach of all time running the show. The ride, however, has been bumpier than anticipated, but Duke is hitting their stride at the right time.
Duke waltzed through most of their non-conference schedule, which featured a neutral site win over #2 Michigan State. The Blue Devils did struggle with Texas, Florida, and Indiana, yet prevailed in all three matchups. In the first ACC tilt of the season, Duke was shockingly toppled by Boston College, who won a total of nine games last year. The 89-84 upset also revealed a problematic trend for the Blue Devils: poor defense, or at times, lack thereof. Duke’s defensive struggles plagued them for the majority of ACC play, until Marvin Bagley III suffered a knee injury following their loss in Chapel Hill. Bagley’s four-game absence prompted Coach K to bring a 2-3 zone into play. Prior to the 2-3 zone, Duke was 19-5, giving up 72.8 ppg. Since the introduction of the zone, Duke is 6-1, giving up a mere 58.0 ppg. Considering Duke already possessed a lethal offense, which currently ranks in the top ten nationally at 85.1 ppg, a reliable defense may have been the missing ingredient to consistent success.
Prior to the season, this Duke team was compared to the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats; a young team brimming with one-and-done talent. That Kentucky team won its first 38 games, before losing in the Final 4 to an experienced Wisconsin team. Although Duke is similar to that Kentucky team in some ways, they are starting to more closely resemble the 2015 Duke team, which defeated Wisconsin in the national championship game. In 2015, Duke featured a trio of young studs; Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones. Grayson Allen was a youngster as well, emerging on the national stage with 16 points in the title game. Most importantly that year, Duke had veteran leadership in the form of Quinn Cook, the only senior.
Now in 2018, Duke is highlighted by the likes of Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Trent Jr., and Trevon Duval. The Blue Devils are led by a single senior: Grayson Allen. Allen has plenty of experience from his four years in Durham, and he is more than equipped to lead Duke to their sixth national championship.