Basketball season is upon us again, a mere day away at all three of the Triangle’s ACC schools. Duke hosts Davidson, North Carolina hosts Oakland and N.C. State hosts Appalachian State to kick things off Friday, with vastly differing expectations in each location.
Duke harbors national-title expectations, North Carolina has a high ceiling but plenty of unknowns and N.C. State is rebuilding after losing nearly its entire rotation. Of the three, the Blue Devils clearly have the most on the line as the preseason ACC favorite with the No. 4 national ranking.
Clarity will begin to emerge Friday, but there’s still time to pose three final unanswered questions, one for each team.
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How will Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon adjust to their new roles?
Under normal circumstances, Duke would be building around Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, both returning starters and major contributors a year ago with substantial room for improvement. Cook, finally healthy, made significant strides at point guard last season while Sulaimon showed a silky, if streaky, scoring touch on the wing.
These aren’t normal circumstances. The arrival of freshman Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, both long-limbed forwards who can play like guards, has provoked a major philosophical shift by Mike Krzyzewski, and neither Cook nor Sulaimon’s role remains the same.
Cook will have the ball in his hands less as the offense runs through Parker and Hood. He’ll become less of a point guard and more of a shooter. Meanwhile, having been an in-your-face, hands-on defender throughout his college career, he’s having to adjust to the new officiating guidelines on the other end of the court.
“It’s been tough adjusting to our new offensive style and our new players, but we’re getting better every day,” Cook said Wednesday. “It’s a fun offense to play. Just playing off the ball more, when Jabari and Rodney get it, my job is to get out, because I’m shooter, they can hit me for a shot. That’s really the biggest thing coach wants me to do. I’ve always had the ball.”
An illness kept Sulaimon out of Duke’s second exhibition game, but he went 1-for-5 from the floor in the first and he’s so deep in Krzyzewski’s doghouse he might find notes left by Nolan Smith and Gerald Henderson (both of whom eventually found their way out). Sulaimon averaged 11.6 points last season, and only three players attempted more shots, but if anything his role has shrunk.
Still, even if Sulaimon and Cook are not the focus of the offense as they might have expected, Duke is still going to need both at their best if it’s going to compete for a national title.
“We need Rasheed to be Rasheed,” Cook said.
What can Ralston Turner and Desmond Lee deliver?
Everyone is assuming new roles for N.C. State this season, but at least with T.J. Warren, Tyler Lewis and Jordan Vandenberg, enough has been seen of them to make a realistic assessment of their ability to handle the changes. And the freshmen, as always, will need some time to adjust, although Kyle Washington and Cat Barber look most ready to contribute.
The real question lies with the older new arrivals, Louisiana State transfer Ralston Turner and junior-college transfer Desmond Lee. Turner at least practiced with the Wolfpack last season, but Lee walks in cold. With their age and experience, far more is expected of these two than the freshmen but they remain as much of a mystery at this point.
The larger the roles Turner and Lee can assume, the better off N.C. State is going to be in a year where inexperience may be the Wolfpack’s biggest anchor. It’s not a stretch to say its season may hinge on how much the two veteran newcomers can contribute.
Which forwards will assume major roles?
The collection of Desmond Hubert, Brice Johnson and Joel James was so underwhelming in the first half of last season that Jackson Simmons ended up getting an unexpected look before Roy Williams finally decided to play James Michael McAdoo with four guards.
This year, the equation is reversed. The Tar Heels were short on guards even before P.J. Hairston was suspended indefinitely and Leslie McDonald ran into NCAA complications as well. But there’s no shortage of bodies at forward, with all five of last year’s candidates back to go with freshmen Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks.
James, who has the potential to take a big step forward this year because of his previous lack of basketball experience, and the offensively talented Johnson played alongside McAdoo in UNC’s exhibition win against UNC-Pembroke, but it will be interesting to see how it shakes out in the long run, both before and after Hairston’s return.