Duke Basketball
Duke basketball is back and while the team sets off on Coach K’s farewell tour, there’s only one goal in mind: a national title. Junior wing Wendell Moore Jr. (pictured) will play an integral role in the squad. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Duke Basketball 2021-22 Season Preview

Not only is college basketball returning on Nov. 9, but Duke basketball – as we’ve come to know it – should be back. In a world that is anything but normal, the Blue Devils are seemingly prepared for a return to their traditional winning ways. Last season’s woes are in the rearview mirror as this group will look to cap off Mike Krzyzewski’s farewell tour on the highest of high notes: a national championship. Let’s get into AP’s preseason No. 9 team in the country.

* All rankings in this preview follow AP’s preseason rankings *

2020-21 Season Recap

It was an abysmal year for the Blue Devils that saw the team’s best freshman leave Durham midseason, their best player exit for the NBA, and a potential two-year starter jump ship early for a pro career. As a fan of all three guys, I can’t dismiss how important it is to make decisions you feel are best – and I will support Jalen Johnson, Matthew Hurt and D.J. Steward until the end of days.

However, I can’t help but feel like one or two of these players, Steward especially, would have helped this current Duke squad. But the reality still remains: Duke was abysmal last year and the only way to go this season is up. The 2020-21 Duke basketball team finished the year 13-11, with a 9-9 record in ACC play. The man-to-man defense that has been the identity for the successful Duke teams of yesteryear was nowhere to be found as the Blue Devils registered a 102.1 defensive rating that ranked 223rd nationally.

Offensively, Hurt was the No. 1 option, but no clear second option rose to the occasion. Steward, Wendell Moore Jr. and Jeremy Roach all had spurts of offensive success, but none achieved a great string of consistency. Freshman center Mark Williams eventually found his footing in February, but it was too little, too late. The Blue Devils were on the cusp of potentially earning a Cinderalla-esque birth in the Big Dance after a great start to ACC tourney play, except that window was abruptly shut after a positive COVID-19 test.

Offseason Losses

Duke CBB 21-22 Exits
First round pick Jalen Johnson (right) drives past Henry Coleman (left), now a Texas A&M Aggie. (Photo by Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

Of the 14 rostered players for Duke basketball last season, six are back in Durham. The aforementioned grouping of Hurt, Johnson and Steward all exited for the NBA. Hurt was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 18.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. The Minnesota native signed with the Memphis Grizzlies in October.

While Johnson’s time in Duke blue was short-lived, his peak production, evident in his game against Pittsburgh, was a valuable asset to a team that lacked a go-to playmaker. Hurt was a good scorer, but Johnson’s versatility and athleticism wasn’t taken advantage of. The 19-year-old was the 20th overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft to the Atlanta Hawks.

Steward’s leap to the NBA was an interesting one. There were plenty of question marks surrounding his game, most notably his ability to play as a point guard rather than a conventional two-guard because of his 6-2, 165-pound frame. The consensus surrounding the former five-star was that he could have benefited from another year at the collegiate level, but he left anyway. Steward was waived by the Sacramento Kings in October.

Veteran point guard Jordan Goldwire (5.8 ppg) took advantage of his super senior year and will be leading the backcourt for Porter Moser at Oklahoma. His impact on the defensive end will be greatly missed.

Freshmen forwards Jaemyn Brakefield and Henry Coleman both left Durham for the SEC, with the former joining Ole Miss and the latter landing at Texas A&M. Both projected to have an uptick in minutes this season, especially in a light frontcourt.

Seniors Patrick Tape and Mike Buckmire are also gone.

Offseason Additions

Paolo Banchero and A.J. Griffin Duke
Five-stars Paolo Banchero (left) and A.J. Griffin (right) figure to star for Duke this season. (Photo Credit: Duke Athletics)

To no one’s surprise, Krzyzewski is reloading once again. Seattle native, Paolo Banchero, a consensus top-three recruit in the country, and in my opinion, the best freshman in the nation, highlights the newest crop of Blue Devils in Durham. The 6-10 forward can do it all. Offensively, he has the handles and body control of a guard. He can score at all three levels, boasting a strong, traditional post-up game, a good stroke from distance and a unique ability to create offensive chances out of nothing. His 250-pound frame will be a nightmare for opposing wings and forwards. Defensively he can guard 1-5 and figures to snag seven or more rebounds a game this year. He will be the go-to guy for Coach K.

Joining Banchero in the freshmen class is five-star combo guard Trevor Keels, five-star wing A.J. Griffin and four-star point guard Jaylen Blakes.

With Griffin picking up a knee injury in early October, Keels will have the most immediate impact out of the trio – and could continue to hold that title when Griffin returns. A 6-5, 210-pound guard, the Fairfax, Virginia native will be immediately thrust into the starting line-up. He looked really strong at Countdown to Craziness, appearing as the team’s best deep threat, while also displaying a good ability to get to the rim in both transition and the half-court.

Griffin, when not sidelined, is your traditional slashing wing. He’s a better shooter than people give him credit for, but he is an absolute tank of an 18-year-old. The Archbishop Stepinac alumnus could fill a similar role to Justise Winslow from the 2015 national championship winning team. He will be a great two-way player and can defend 1-4.

And finally, Blakes. The 6-1 point guard will look the most like a freshman of anyone in the four man class. He will be a handful on the defensive side of the ball, but offensively he’ll be similar in some ways to a younger Goldwire. He can threaten you from deep and beat you off the dribble, but his offensive game is not as developed as his trio of five-star teammates. Also, can’t forget about the late summer addition: center Stanley Borden. He’s 7-0 and from Istanbul, Turkey, that’s about all we know.

While on one end of the spectrum we have youth, we now reach the most experienced members of the squad: graduate transfers Theo John (Marquette) and Bates Jones (Davidson). John will be one of the best back-up centers Duke basketball has had since Marshall Plumlee. He has a smooth touch around the rim and looked really comfortable with his back to the basket against Williams in CTC. He’ll be an anchor in the paint and is an excellent interior defender, blocking 191 shots in his time for the Golden Eagles. Jones is likely at the bottom of the rotation but can slot in as a potential stretch-four or small ball five.

2021-22 Season Outlook

It’s Coach K’s last season, so with that comes the unnecessarily dramatic pregame videos, the questions to opposing coaches about his legacy and impact on them, and of course, increased pressure and expectations on the country’s most hated team.

When you wear the D-U-K-E across your chest, you already gets everyone’s best punch, but this year will be something entirely different. Stadiums will be at capacity. Student sections will be equal parts relentless and ruthless. The ACC gauntlet will be just a little bit tougher. At the end of the day, in Coach K’s final season on the Duke sideline, no matter how “normal” the coaching staff may try to make this season feel, it’s anything but.

The Blue Devils have three great non-conference games against Top 25 opponents. Duke basketball heads on the road in ACC play to Charlottesville, South Bend, Syracuse, Louisville, Tallahassee and as always, Chapel Hill. This will be a battle tested team come March, with the success of the season relying on the greatness of the freshmen and the consistency of the returners. If each hit at or near their ceiling, this could be a special year – in more ways than the obvious one.

Projected Starting Five and Bench

Projected Starting Five:

  • PG: Jeremy Roach, So. (8.7 ppg, 2.8 apg)
  • SG: Trevor Keels, Fr.
  • SF: Wendell Moore Jr., Jr. (9.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.7 apg)
  • PF: Paolo Banchero, Fr.
  • C: Mark Williams, So. (7.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg)

Bench:

  • B1: A.J. Griffin, SF, Fr.
  • B2: Theo John, PF/C, Gr. (8.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
  • B3: Joey Baker, SF, Sr. (2.9 ppg, 31.3% from three)
  • B4: Jaylen Blakes, PG, Fr.
  • B5: Bates Jones, PF, Gr. (2.6 ppg, 37.5% from three at Davidson)

I’ll say it: until, the ACC media preseason votes were compiled, Wendell Moore Jr. was not getting enough attention. Shoutout to The Athletic’s Brendan Marks for responding to my question about Moore (Brendan’s coverage of all things Duke and UNC is excellent), because the success of this season lies on the leap of the junior, for better or worse.

The former five-star has been incredibly inconsistent in his first two seasons in Durham averaging 7.3 points per game as a freshman and 9.7 as a sophomore. But if the reports are true, he now has a confidence this season that he hasn’t had in his 730-plus days at Duke. Maybe that confidence and internal peace came with the co-captain honors. Maybe it’s just the natural progression of a now three-year player that has seen, and experienced, it all. Regardless, Moore seems poised to not only become a double-digit scorer, but the kind of guy that Krzyzewski can lean on when Banchero, Griffin or Keels is struggling offensively.

As for the rest of the squad, Roach will need to make the freshman to sophomore leap at the point guard position. He was named to the preseason Bob Cousy Award watch list and it is critical that he answers the floor general question in Durham. Senior co-captain Joey Baker needs to shoot better than his 31.3% average from distance last season. If he can become a tried and true three-point threat, then add Baker to the arsenal of weapons at Krzyzewski’s disposal.

‘Big Mark’ will need to start right where he left off in March – he had a dominant 23 point, 19 rebound outing against Louisville. If he can become a consistent 12-plus point scorer and snag eight or more rebounds a game, this team will be cooking. John could very well get more than 20 minutes off the bench and his defense will be invaluable. The Keels vs Griffin conundrum could prove difficult for Coach K come conference play, but it’s a problem any coach would kill to have.

I end with two final thoughts surrounding the point guard question. First, don’t be surprised if Moore steps into the role in December and on. Roach did not look great at CTC and I think Krzyzewski will have faith putting the ball in Moore’s hands, despite history saying otherwise – he averages 2.2 turnovers per game in his career. Secondly, and probably more divisive, I wouldn’t mind seeing Banchero play point forward. Give him the ball, let him create and see what happens. Imagine Ben Simmons, but he can shoot, he listens to coaches and is willing to attempt an open lay-up – sounds like a star to me.

Non-Conference Schedule

* Home games in bold, Away games are standard and Neutral games are italicized *

  • Nov. 9 – #10 Kentucky (Champions Classic)
  • Nov. 12 – Army (Duke Veterans Day Weekend Showcase)
  • Nov. 13 – Campbell (Duke Veterans Day Weekend Showcase)
  • Nov. 16 – Gardner-Webb
  • Nov. 19 – Lafayette
  • Nov. 22- The Citadel
  • Nov. 26 – #1 Gonzaga (Continental Tire Challenge)
  • Nov. 30 – #17 Ohio State (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
  • Dec. 14 – South Carolina State
  • Dec. 16 – Appalachian State
  • Dec. 18 – Cleveland State

If you asked me what a traditional non-conference slate looked like for Duke basketball, I’d show you this schedule. You’ve got three tough, physical match-ups against Top 25 opponents, with tests against mid-major teams throughout the slate. The squad opens with a Champions Classic battle against John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats. It’s a fight between No. 9 and No. 10, and with both teams boasting young(er) squads, we’ll get an early inkling of the ceilings for each team.

After returning from Madison Square Garden, Duke has a five game homestand. Facing his alma mater Army will be an emotional game for Coach K and Campbell is one of the favorites to win the Big South crown this season. Gardner-Webb is also a really solid Big South threat, with Lafayette and The Citadel rounding out the slate.

Then it’s on to Sin City. The Blue Devils face preseason No. 1 Gonzaga in one of the premier games of the CBB season. We’ll get Banchero vs Chet Holmgren, Williams vs Drew Timme and Krzyzewski vs Mark Few. The game is on Black Friday, so take some time away from the shopping to catch an amazing 40 minutes of hoops.

Just four days later, the Blue Devils head to Columbus for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Buckeyes will prove to be another great test, especially in the frontcourt. The likes of E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young will be a real challenge for Banchero and Williams. The non-conference schedule is rounded out by a trio of games against South Carolina State, App. State and Cleveland State before the Christmas break.

Conference Schedule

Duke CBB 2021-22 Conf Play
The Blue Devils were swept by the Tar Heels last season after two outstanding performances from UNC’s Caleb Love (No. 2). Moore (No. 0) and the rest of the Duke basketball squad will look to return the favor this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

* Home games in bold, Away games are italicized *

  • Dec. 22 – Virginia Tech
  • Dec. 29 – Clemson
  • Jan. 1 – Notre Dame
  • Jan. 4 – Georgia Tech
  • Jan. 8 – Miami
  • Jan. 12 – Wake Forest
  • Jan. 15 – NC State
  • Jan. 17 – #20 Florida State
  • Jan. 22 – Syracuse
  • Jan. 25 – Clemson
  • Jan. 29 – Louisville
  • Feb. 5 – #19 North Carolina
  • Feb. 7 – #25 Virginia
  • Feb. 12 – Boston College
  • Feb. 15 – Wake Forest
  • Feb. 19 – #20 Florida State
  • Feb. 23 – #25 Virginia
  • Feb. 26 – Syracuse
  • Mar. 1 – Pittsburgh
  • Mar. 5 – #19 North Carolina

These road battles will be a different animal. As opposed to that other team on Tobacco Road, the Blue Devils face more than three top seven ACC road contests. That game against Virginia will be ugly as always. The North Carolina games already have me nervous. An early trip to Notre Dame after playing a tough and experienced Clemson squad is one that is a point of concern. The seven game stretch in late January and early February featuring away games against FSU, Louisville and UNC should be circled by any Duke fan – going at least 4-3 in that stretch will be critical. But hey, on the bright side, Duke basketball isn’t traveling to Blacksburg, Miami or Raleigh, so those games are no longer guaranteed losses.

Ceiling/Floor

The ceiling for this Duke team is a Final Four run capped off by a national title in the Big Easy. That may be a bit of the homer in me speaking, but if Banchero is as good as advertised, and Moore, Williams and others make their expected leaps, this is an elite team. Krzyzewski, the coaching staff and the team have an extra incentive to win the school’s sixth national title too – whether they want to admit it or not. Regardless, the pool of potential national champions is as deep as it has ever been in my lifetime, so Duke basketball will need to be elite offensively and defensively.

The floor for Duke is probably a top-four ACC team, a six seed in the Big Dance and a Round of 32 exit. If Banchero struggles with inconsistency, as many freshmen do, then this team will waver. While Moore does seem to be more relaxed and confident in his role this year, if this team lacks a go-to guy, he has not displayed an ability to be a consistent No. 1 option for the team – I hope he proves me wrong. There are plenty of other scenarios that could play out that cause this team to underwhelm, but contrary to my nature, I’m trying to be positive.

Prediction

And here’s where I either temper my expectations or shoot for the moon. In trying to be transparent, I think this Duke squad is an Elite Eight team that finishes second or third in conference play. Am I hoping and praying for a national title? Of course. But right now, there are teams with more talent, more experience and less question marks in an already absurdly deep pool. Regardless, here’s to a sixth national title for Duke basketball – raises imaginary glass.

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