Five observations as No. 4 Duke basketball enters the regular season

Practice games behind them, the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils are finally focused on matchups that matter.

Following a pair of exhibition wins over Division II teams, Duke opens the season Tuesday night against No. 3 Kansas in the Champions Classic at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

After that high-profile opener, the Blue Devils return to Cameron Indoor Stadium to open their home regular-season schedule on Friday night against Colorado State.

Those games begin a season-opening flurry of eight games over 22 days and 11 games over the season’s first month.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff have plenty of questions to answer about this year’s team, particularly in comparison to a year ago when RJ Barrett and Zion WIlliamson were about to be unleashed on the college basketball world.

The answers will come quickly with Duke’s busy November schedule that the Blue Devils annually face.

Here are five observations heading into the regular season.

This team will rely on defense

While Duke’s reputation as a strong defensive team rightfully took some hits earlier this decade, the Blue Devils are clearly elite once again and that should continue this season.

Duke has finished in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s national defensive efficiency ratings each of the last three seasons, peaking at No. 3 last season.

The Blue Devils had finished outside the top 10 in each of the six seasons prior that, dropping as far as No. 86 twice (2013-14 and 2015-16).

But this team, with national defensive player of the year candidate Tre Jones entrenched at point guard, not only should play intense defense, but it must.

“Well I hope so,” Krzyzewski said last Wednesday night. “It’s gotta be a balance. The best way to be balanced is to have everyone play good defense.”

Jones, Cassius Stanley, Wendell Moore and Jordan Goldwire are effective perimeter defenders. Senior forward Jack White is versatile and solid there as well.

Inside, senior Javin DeLaurier and freshmen Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt all have the length to help protect the rim.

Northwest Missouri State shot 39.7 percent overall with 21 turnovers in Duke’s narrow 69-63 exhibition win. An overwhelmed Fort Valley State team shot 43.6 percent with 36 turnovers.

Duke has the ability to prevent teams from scoring and must use that as a force this season.

Expect starting lineup flux

A year ago, we knew the Blue Devils would start Williamson, Barrett, Reddish and Jones every game if all were healthy.

Jones, Carey and Hurt look like the lone certainties in this year’s lineup. Jordan Goldwire was part of the starting five along with Cassius Stanley for the Fort Valley State exhibition. This was part of Krzyzewski’s emphasis on defense, since Goldwire and Jones have proven effective while paired together in Duke’s full-court pressure defense.

Just as Goldwire has to prove his defense overcomes his lack of offensive production, Joey Baker and Alex O’Connell have to show they aren’t such defensive liabilities their offensive punch can’t make up for it.

DeLaurier and White could find their way into the starting lineup at times as well. Both will be part of Duke’s rotation.

This is a team without sure-fire lottery picks like Barrett and Williamson so the coaching staff will move players in and out of key roles depending upon their play.

“I like my group,” Krzyzewski said at last month’s ACC Operation Basketball event. “Not that I didn’t like my group last year, but this group is -- they really like one another, and they -- there’s not the separation that we’ve had from our starting five to our bench like we’ve had in the last few years. The balance and togetherness hopefully will produce something really good for us.”

Shooting won’t be consistent

Duke wasn’t a good 3-point shooting team last season and made just 2 of 16 from behind the newly extended line in its 69-63 exhibition win over Northwest Missouri State while shooting 42 percent overall.

That led Krzyzewski to say, “We are not a good shooting team. We are a very average shooting team.”

The Blue Devils responded five nights later by drilling 13 of 28 3-pointers on a night they shot 61 percent overall in a 126-57 win.

Baker shot well that night, making 6 of 8 3-pointers, while White made 2 of 3 and Alex O’Connell 2 of 5.

But as mentioned earlier, the ability of those three to play solid defense to earn playing time will impact how many minutes they’ll get and how many chances they’ll get to shoot.

Ball movement will be important, with Jones playing a major role, in Duke being in position to maximize offensive opportunities.

Duke made 30.8 percent of its 3-pointers last season, the first time the Blue Devils shot below 37.2 percent on them as a team since the 2008-09 team shot 34.9 percent.

This year’s team doesn’t look like one that will get back to 37 percent on 3-pointers but the Blue Devils do need to find a way to climb up from last year’s 30.8 percent.

Duke needs Matthew Hurt to score

Freshman forward Matthew Hurt, who’s 6-9 and 214 pounds, should play a role in giving us an answer to Duke’s questionable shooting consistency.

Built tall enough to score, rebound and defend in the post, Hurt is also athletic enough to play on the perimeter. In Duke’s earliest practices and scrimmages in late September and October, Hurt showed signs of being Duke’s top scorer this season.

The Blue Devils need him to be a 3-point threat as well as someone who can drive and score. If he does all those things, he’ll be a first-team all-ACC player in what would be his lone year of college basketball.

But we’ll have to see if that all plays out. Hurt only made 1 of 6 3-point attempts in Duke’s two exhibition games while averaging 18 points.

Watch for where experience matters

In each of the last three seasons, while seeing six of its one-and-done players become NBA Draft lottery picks, Duke fell short of the Final Four after injuries robbed freshmen of playing time at one point or another during the season.

Krzyzewski doesn’t hide the fact that he believes the sprained knee Williamson suffered when his shoe famously failed against UNC last February was a wrench in the machine as the Blue Devils sought to win a national title.

In the two previous years, Jayson Tatum and Marvin Bagley III missed games while nursing injuries and Duke’s chemistry appeared to suffer.

Since this year’s team doesn’t have players projected to be lottery picks before their college seasons start, maybe the Blue Devils’ cohesiveness will be stronger than it was the last three seasons.

If adversity comes, which it likely will, can this group overcome it and be at its best in March? That’s the annual goal for Duke but it hasn’t been the case over the last three seasons.

No. 4 Duke vs. No. 3 Kansas

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Madison Square Garden, New York

Watch: ESPN

Listen: WDNC-AM (620, Durham), Buzz Sports Radio (96.5, Durham, 99.3, Raleigh), WBCN-FM (94.7, Charlotte), WHVN-AM (1660, Charlotte)

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.