While other tournaments were lucky to find a pair of ranked teams, the Bahamas featured an eight team field that featured two top five squads, the favorite from the Atlantic 10, and at least couple of sure-fire NCAA Tournament teams. The media certainly agreed with CBS's Jeff Goodman saying the tournament boasted the "most potent field in modern-day early season tournament history."
Duke successfully navigated that minefield by beating Minnesota, VCU, and then No. 2 Louisville on successive nights - winning by an average of 10.7 points per game. In doing so the team, which lost two first round NBA Draft picks in June, looked to be far superior to last year's group.
Here's our takeaways from the three days on Paradise Island…
1. K has his point guard: A season ago the Blue Devils were never quite on the same page on either side of the court. Much of that had to do with the lack of a true point guard. Seth Curry began the season with the ball in his hands, but proved himself to be far more comfortable as a shooting guard as he struggled to distribute and run the offense. Duke turned to Tyler Thornton who provided a spark on defense, but wasn't up to the task of running the show in Durham on a full-time basis. The Blue Devils then turned to a freshman with a history of knee problems. Quinn Cook showed some flashes, but there were many more rocky patches than not before Cook disappeared for the remainder of the season and Curry finished the year as the lead guard alongside Austin Rivers. The result was a disjointed mess.
A season later, and things are running smoothly because Cook is a different player. The now healthy sophomore is taking care of the ball, getting his teammates involved, and he's also playing defense. In three games this weekend he averaged 13.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 13-of-28 (.464) from the floor and 15-of-17 (.882) from the free throw line. There are still times when Cook will seemingly be out of control, but far more often the sophomore is using his speed and creativity to set up his teammates for easy looks. Or, he's creating his own offense. Either way, head coach Mike Krzyzewski seems extremely pleased with the development of Cook:
"Respect is not something you can give. It's earned," Krzyzewski said. "I think since the Georgia State game, Quinn has earned the respect of everyone. What he did in the Kentucky game, everyone talks about a kid getting confidence. It's when a team has confidence in its point guard that you take off. This team has great confidence in Quinn and he has earned it."
2. Balanced five: As noted previously, a season ago the Blue Devil offensive priority list read: Austin Rivers, Austin Rivers, someone else, Austin Rivers. Certainly the prized freshman delivered with a number of big shots and high level production, but the rest of the Duke lineup never seemed to figure out how to play off Rivers (and the other three players on the court). It made for a mixed bag of production for most of the year before flaming out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This year the hierarchy once again starts with a star player - a much more confident Mason Plumlee - but the Blue Devils are also much more aware of how to balance their individual strengths as a whole. Much of that has to do with the play of Cook, but for whatever reason, Duke's pieces fit together much better this season. The result is a starting five which averaged 17.7 (Plumlee), 13.0 (Kelly), 13.7 (Cook), 18.0 (Curry), and 12.3 (Sulaimon) points per game over three days.
Plumlee is certainly the top option, but with the big man's passing ability and the team's system, teams can't just hope to stop him and Curry. The next step in the team's development will be for Sulaimon and Kelly to continue to find their range. Neither shot well from the perimeter, but both have the ability to knock down open looks at a high percentage from three point range.
3. But who else will step up? While the balanced production of the starting five was a thing of beauty, there's a lot of untapped potential on the bench. At least that's the hope. The trio of Amile Jefferson, Tyler Thornton, and Josh Hairston scored two points against Minnesota, three points against VCU, and six points against Louisville. Krzyzewski didn't seem overly concerned with the lack of scoring by his reserves, saying those players don't need to score for this team to be successful. That certainly proved true over the last few days, but what happens as the season drags on? Seth Curry has a well-documented shin injury that will hinder him throughout the season. Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly have both gotten into foul trouble (though the last two fouls on Kelly against Louisville were somewhat comical). And there's always a chance fatigue will creep in on players going hard for nearly 37 minutes per night. So what happens when one or a combination of those factors rear their ugly head(s)? The answer, so far, is unclear. Early in the year Alex Murphy was expected to step in after starting the first two exhibition games, but he's played a total of 11 minutes since then. Amile Jefferson is getting around eight minutes per night, and Josh Hairston is earning around 10. Neither of the three players has proven himself ready to factor into the rotation at any larger level. Perhaps the biggest need for Duke is rebounding, and the hope is that Marshall Plumlee's return will at least allow Krzyzewski some relief on the boards for Kelly and Mason Plumlee when either gets into foul trouble. Against Louisville Duke played a brief stint with Hairston, Jefferson, and Murphy on the floor in the front court and the team was somewhat successful. It'd be great to see more of those players factoring into the rotation - something that could happen after the Ohio State game (see below). For all of the greatness that has come out of the starting five, they supporting case, the Blue team, or whatever you want to call it, needs to do more.
4. No rest for the weary: Duke headed home before 10AM on Sunday morning. No time to stay at the resort and enjoy the big water slide, the aquariums, or anything else. Instead, the Blue Devils headed home to watch film of their next top five opponent, the Ohio State Buckeyes. OSU comes calling to Cameron on Wednesday, and it'll be the third top five opponent Duke has seen in the last two weeks. No team in the country has played such a schedule. A season ago a heavy travel schedule that included trips to China, Dubai, then Maui, then to Columbus resulted in a tentative and somewhat shellshocked group of Blue Devils when they faced the Buckeyes and were soundly defeated, 85-63.
Fast forward a year and Duke has traveled to the Bahamas (obviously a much shorter flight) and played three incredibly tough games in three days. Now the team must return and face a short turnaround before the Buckeyes come calling again. It's another test to see how much better this team can be from a season ago. Individually, Duke should have the advantage inside, but Cook will face a very tough test in the form of Aaron Craft. Similarly, the Buckeyes remain extremely athletic and capable on the wing - just as they were a season ago when William Buford and Deshaun Thomas combined for 38 points in the rout.
5. After OSU…: Duke will face a stretch of games that should be a considerable step down in terms of competition. The Blue Devils will face Delaware on Saturday, December 1st. Then it's a week off before heading to New Jersey to face Temple. Then it's 11 days off before back to back games against Cornell and Elon. Then another nine days off before Santa Clara on December 29th. Following that, Duke will play Davidson in Charlotte on January 2nd, followed by The Opening of the ACC regular season against a decidedly weak Wake Forest team on Saturday January 5th, before Clemson comes to town on January 8th. The next big test will come on January 12th when Duke goes to Raleigh to face North Carolina State.
If you're scoring at home, that's eight games and 43 days of time between the battle against OSU and the next big game. Certainly exams factor in during that time, but there's more than a month of practice and what should be very winnable games for players like Jefferson, Murphy, Marshall Plumlee, and Josh Hairston to establish their roles for the remainder of the year. Which of those four steps up and earns the time over that period, will be the most telling and interesting storyline of the season as Duke will likely be heavily settled in with the rotation by the time the bus leaves for the game against the Wolfpack.