Duke lost 70% of its total scoring, 66% of its rebounding and 65% of its total assists from last season’s 25-win team. So replacing that production — and specifically, replacing the star players who led that production — is as tall a task for any program in the ACC this season.
Lest we not forget, though, that it’s Duke we’re talking about here. Coach K has raked in a top-three recruiting class to restock the cupboard, and Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore — two former top-30 talents — are back as sophomores. This team could be as good or better than the last one. Between last year’s recruiting class and this year’s, for instance, there is a combined seven top-50 national talents on this roster. No one is writing this off as a rebuilding year!
Just how good will Duke be, though? That’s a question we’ll begin to try answering on Nov. 25 — the first day of the season Duke announced as part of its Tuesday schedule rollout. As for when we’ll really learn its mettle, here are the five top tests the Blue Devils have on their slate, ranked from most to least challenging.
1. ACC/Big Ten Challenge vs. Illinois, Dec. 8
Whoo boy, this one is an absolute doozy. Duke will host Illinois in this game, which is no doubt the headline matchup of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this year. The Illini bring back a vaunted inside-out duo in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn as part of a championship-caliber core that has Illinois at No. 8 in the AP Preseason Top 25. Duke’s inexperienced backcourt will really be put to the test here in defending Dosunmu.
2. Champions Classic vs. Michigan State, Dec. 1
Michigan State lost Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, but Tom Izzo still gets back a competent core led by Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry. That fearsome backcourt will bring plenty of scoring punch into this contest, though Duke may have an advantage in size and length. The focus in this one may be on the sidelines as it pits Izzo against Coach K. Izzo is 1-12 in his career coaching against the Duke legend.
The worst North Carolina team Roy Williams has ever fielded is, mercifully, in the rearview. Now he’s revamped his roster around a youthful core that includes three top-25 national recruits and an All-American caliber vet in Garrison Brooks. After losing both matchups last season, UNC may be in for a little revenge in this regular-season finale.
4. Duke vs. Virginia, Feb. 20
Duke is 2-2 in its last four meetings with Virginia. That’s a testament to the monster Tony Bennett has built in Charlottesville as part of a perennial force in the league and beyond, and next season should be no different. The Cavaliers will once again have an impossible-to-score-on defense and a slow-you-down system that will throw Duke for a loop. Calling my shot now: UVa is pulling this one off.
Florida State has a tendency to take Duke down to the wire; their last five meetings were decided by an average of less than six points. I expect that trend to continue this season as Leonard Hamilton reboots his roster without Devin Vassell, Pat Williams and Trent Forrest. He has five-star frosh Scottie Barnes to lead that effort and some talented returning players, including M.J. Walker, Anthony Polite and Malik Osborne.