With the departure of Luol Deng and Shaun Livingston to the NBA, the Blue Devils went from the ability to start a lineup with just one player under 6-foot-6 to having only Shavlik Randolph and Shelden Williams as ACC caliber players over six and a half feet.
With Deng gone Duke will have to rely on Randolph to step in and continue to show the ability that made him the top rated high school player for more than two years. At 6-foot-10 and a finally stable 235 pounds, Randolph showed he was ready to break out in March, with big performances in each tournament game.
The knock on Shavlik is that he is not now, nor will he ever be a center. He's a power forward who is at his best when he's alongside a big body on both ends of the floor. For Shavlik to excel as a junior he cannot spend his time battling rotund opponents such as Wake Forest's Eric Williams, or North Carolina's Sean May. That job must fall to Williams, who has proven to be among the elite big men in the conference...when he can stay on the floor.
Coming off a sophomore campaign that saw him average nearly 13 points and nine rebounds per game, Williams is Duke's only option to bang inside. At 6'9 and 260 pounds physicality won't bother the Oklahoma native, but his 3.3 fouls per game and six DQs must improve if Duke is to remain competitive on the boards.
With Williams on the bench Duke will be forced to go small with an out of position power forward manning the middle alongside a foursome of guards – something that will buy time against some teams, but isn't a likely recipe for success over the long haul.
Aside from Williams and Randolph, the Blue Devils have 6-foot-6 swingman David McClure and 6-foot-10 walk on Patrick Johnson to call on in the paint. While McClure has proven a capable rebounder against bigger opponents in high school, Johnson has yet to show much of anything in his limited action in Durham.
Question #2 - Will Duke Hurt For Depth?
Aside from the interior, the Blue Devils won't have too much trouble following the normal pattern of playing the top seven or eight players on the roster. That's a good thing too since there are only eight scholarship players on this year's roster.
Joining Williams, Randolph, and McClure on the free rides are incoming freshman DeMarcus Nelson, juniors J.J. Redick, Lee Melchionni, and Sean Dockery, and senior Daniel Ewing. All of who will occupy the backcourt and wing positions for head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The rotation will likely feature Williams, Randolph, Redick, Ewing, and Dockery starting with Nelson fighting for immediate playing time as the sixth man. McClure and Melchionni will likely be able to spell the forwards, and Johnson could log a few minutes in a Matt Christensen sort of role to relieve the two big guys for short breathers.
In a sense Duke's rotation isn't a big departure from this past season, provided that Randolph can continue to improve while stepping into Deng's shoes and that McClure and Johnson can step in for Shavlik and Nick Horvath by spelling the interior in spot duty while providing the occasional scoring spurt.
Question #3 - Who's Going To Lead This Team?
The most likely candidate is senior scoring guard Daniel Ewing, who has long been considered Duke's best offensive option by a number of coaches, analysts, and players. Last year Chris Duhon came out of nowhere and surprised by leading the Blue Devils to within one missed lay-up of a National Title.
This year Ewing, who averaged 12.6 points per game in 30 minutes of action, looks ready to assume the role of leader and go-to-guy for Coach K's troops. Like Duhon before him, Daniel enters his senior season coming off a junior campaign that saw him produce a bit less than expected thanks in part to playing with a broken foot for much of the year. Already Ewing has routinely been seen in Card Gym working on his ball handling skills as apparently prepares to shoulder some of the ball handling responsibilities with Sean Dockery.
Speaking of Dockery, look for the junior to also be relied on as a leader by default. It's a well known fact that aside from having the most famous ribs in the country, Duhon was expected to be and extension of Coach K on the floor as were his predecessors. The expectations of Dockery will be no different.
Question #4 - What Kind of Chemistry Will This Team Have?
Perhaps the one thing that served Duke well above all others in 2003-2004 was the team's chemistry which was as strong as any Duke team in history according to several sources within the program. Thankfully the Blue Devils return much of the same roster, with no known conflicts heading into the summer.
Incoming freshmen Nelson and McClure are considered the typical "Duke Players" in that they are able to adapt to the roles that serve the team over individual agendas, so there should once again be a tight knit group suiting up in the Royal and White this season. In what promises to be the best basketball conference in America, that can translate into a big advantage during crunch time in hostile environments.
Question #5 - Any Chance Of A Surprise Between Now And Late October?
The biggest surprise would be a change in heart by Shaun Livingston, which is a long shot at this point. The latest information available has Livingston going to Charlotte at #4, though if the Bobcats opt in another direction it could mean a lot of uncertainty for the Peoria standout floor general.
Livingston has kept in strict contact with Duke and is monitoring everything while moving forward with the process. In all likelihood he's staying in the draft, unless something changes in the coming week or so.
If he did decide to come to school then Duke would become a lot more dynamic on the offensive end of the floor, but at this point that's wishful thinking more than anything else.
Question #6 - Where Will Duke Be Ranked To Start The Season?
It all depends on the voters really. If they are convinced that Randolph will be able to breakout, that Williams will stay out of foul trouble, and that some how Duke can find a third rebounder then the Blue Devils could start out anywhere in the 5-10 range. If not, then it's probably in the early to mid teens nationally and in the top four of the conference.
Question #7 - What Will Be This Team's Calling Card?
For the first time in a long time the 2003-2004 Devils were defined by their defensive prowess inside thanks to Williams' shot blocking ability. Next year looks to be more of the same as long as the fouls don't start to mount up on the big guy. With Emeka Okafor likely bound for Orlando, Chicago, or other NBA doormats, it's not a stretch to think Williams could be considered the premiere shot blocker in the country as a junior.
If that proved true and Randolph can finally live up to the hype, Duke could arguably boast the best starting interior duo in the conference along with Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Wake Forest.
If the big guys are able to stay on the floor then the perimeter defense will once again be allowed to overplay the passing lanes and generally harass the opposition's ball handlers with the trio of Dockery, Nelson, and Ewing - all of whom are considered strong defensive forces in their own rights.
On paper this team could be as strong as last year on the defensive end of the court, which would put them within striking distance of any opponent.
Offensively this group will most likely work from the perimeter on most nights, though the inside duo will give a legit scoring option inside the paint. Last year Williams commanded a double team on most nights, which left the perimeter threats of Redick and Ewing able to get open looks from the outside. That could be the case once again this season with the added bonus of Nelson, who resembles North Carolina's Rashad McCants, with his ability to score in a number of ways including from the perimeter and off the dribble thanks to his 6'3, 212 pound chiseled frame.
Question #8 - What Is A Reasonable Expectation For 2004-2005?
Had Deng and Livingston honored their commitments then you could make the argument that it was National Title or bust in 2004-2005. Without those two there are still reasons to think that Duke can make a return trip to the Final Four in the coming season. After all Georgia Tech did it with a similar sized roster, and a favorable draw in the big dance, which is a crap shoot at best.
Much of this question can't be answered without a look at the official schedule, which won't be released until the end of the summer. Without a round robin format in the conference this season there are at least a few games that Duke fans will be glad to avoid, and some that are a welcomed 'breather' from the grind that will be this year's conference race. Until the schedule is out, predicting win totals and subsequent seedings is impossible.
However Duke should be in a position to once again challenge for the ACC title in the regular and post seasons, while maintaining a presence in the top 20 throughout the season.