Duke basketball expects promising future despite spring upheaval

Returning lineup, recruiting outweigh spring upheaval

CorrespondentMay 16, 2012 

After Amile Jefferson’s announcement Tuesday that the McDonald’s All-American would play for Duke, the Blue Devils can look forward to the relative tranquility of the summer feeling comfortable with the way its somewhat tumultuous spring unfolded.

Since the Blue Devils lost to Lehigh in their opening game of the NCAA basketball tournament, Austin Rivers has declared for the NBA draft, Michael Gbinije has transferred to Syracuse and Andre Dawkins has decided to take a sabbatical from the team.

Duke also missed out on recruiting targets such as Shabazz Muhammad and Tony Parker, who both opted for UCLA.

Even when the Blue Devils received good news in the form of Mason Plumlee returning, there were “buts” attached – Plumlee’s high school coach added his voice to the chorus of people who have criticized the way Duke uses its big men.

Yet, although they have not had much chance to exhale, Duke’s coaches don’t think there was anything too unique about the spring it has endured.

“It’s kind of the way the landscape is with college basketball now,” assistant coach Chris Collins said recently. “You’re seeing so many defections whether it’s the NBA or transfers. Really, in the last five years or so, it’s seemed like every spring has now become like this where you’re going to have defections for multiple different reasons.”

Adjusting to the unexpected

The thing that most qualified as a surprise to Collins was Gbinije’s decision to leave.

With Rivers’ departure, the sophomore-to-be seemed to have a path toward playing time at the small forward spot, after averaging a modest 1.7 points and 0.8 rebounds last season.

“Obviously, you never want to lose players to transfer,” Collins said. “We wanted Michael Gbinije to return, but we also supported his decision of wanting to play more and wanting to find a better fit for him to have more opportunities.”

Few would have thought at the end of last season that Dawkins might not play for the Blue Devils in 2012-13, but that was before his father disclosed that Dawkins is still mourning the death of his sister, Lacey, who was killed in a car accident on Dec. 5, 2009, while driving to a Duke game.

“It has affected his ability to enjoy and get better at the game,” Collins said. “So I think for us, it’s all about making sure that everybody, no matter who that guy is, you want him to be happy on and off the floor. You want to be your best at everything.

“Now, does that mean that he wants to take the whole season and redshirt and kind of get right and get his head together to have a great year? Or will that be accomplished by this summer? That’s why there’s no timetable.”

Plumlee’s decision to return was unequivocally good news for the Blue Devils, at least on the surface. But his high school coach David Gaines told the Asheville Citizen-Times that he didn’t like the way Plumlee was being used as a screen-setter and that Plumlee should have left for the NBA.

Collins gave Gaines a call shortly thereafter to clear the air.

“I think the main thing is you always want to have an open forum of conversation,” Collins said. “It doesn’t have to be talked about publicly.

“We feel like Mason has improved a great deal from his freshman year. If you look at where he was as a freshman to where his game was as a junior with his low-post game and his ability to produce with scoring and rebounding and defensively – we feel great about his development and obviously he does too because he wants another year of that before he becomes a pro.”

Lineup possibilities

With Plumlee back in the fold and Jefferson on board, the frontcourt should have a number of possibilities.

It seems likely that either Tyler Thornton or Quinn Cook will enter the 2012-13 season starting at point guard, joined by Seth Curry at shooting guard, redshirt freshman Alex Murphy or incoming freshman Rasheed Sulaimon at small forward, Ryan Kelly at power forward and Plumlee at center.

Jefferson and Josh Hairston seem likely to see significant minutes off the bench, and there also may be a role for Marshall Plumlee, a 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman, depending on how he develops.

“I think it would be a disappointment if those guys weren’t ready,” ESPN.com recruiting analyst Dave Telep said about Murphy and Marshall Plumlee. “They’ve had a whole year now and have basically taken an apprenticeship at Duke University. I think the expectation is those guys have to be ready to come in and help out.”

What that all means for the Blue Devils is that, despite the hand-wringing from some this spring, they are still returning four starters and adding a number of talented newcomers to a team that went 27-7 and finished second in the ACC with a 13-3 record.

“We actually feel like we return a big part of our nucleus from this year,” Collins said. “With the number of guys we’ve got coming back and three seniors, we have a nice foundation to build with.”

Even with three prominent seniors – Plumlee, Curry and Kelly – to provide leadership, it seems unlikely Duke will test itself with the arduous non-conference travel schedule it had last season. While there are trips to the Bahamas and Atlanta planned for November, Collins said one of the things the coaching staff has reflected on in its analysis of last season is the weariness of the team in March.

“I think early in the year, it really helped us that we had gone overseas and had a great trip to China and Dubai. I think it was a big reason why we came out of the gate so fast and were able to beat teams like Kansas and Michigan State and Michigan,” Collins said.

“But I think looking back at it, our guys did get a little bit worn down at the end of the season, and as much as we tried to keep ’em fresh, we weren’t at our best, and we didn’t peak at the right time.

“That’s disappointing because at the end of the day, you need to be playing your best basketball when it matters most. We weren’t doing that this year, and we need to try to make adjustment so we can do that in the future.”

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