Duke Basketball: Toughest ACC Matchups at Each Position
The Duke Blue Devils are carrying on without a couple of NBA draft picks from this picture, but coach Mike Krzyzewski is never one to be caught short of talent.
The rest of the ACC, however, is often similarly loaded, and Duke's path to a conference title is rarely without its bumps in the road.
Every team has positions of strength and weakness, although those terms are highly relative from team to team. Duke's weakest links could become stars for, say, Boston College or Georgia Tech. But some teams have talents that simply match up well with the Blue Devils in particular areas.
The following teams can give Duke's players at each position the toughest run they're likely to see once ACC play begins.
Player positions according to VerbalCommits.com.
Point Guard: North Carolina
The Matchup: Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones vs. Joel Berry, Nate Britt and Marcus Paige (pictured)
Marcus Paige alone is a handful for most teams, whether he's on or off the ball. In last season's regular-season finale, Paige scorched Duke for 24 points.
Against any team that struggles to keep its house clean on the defensive glass (see: Duke, 2013-14), Paige is a constant threat to take an outlet pass and weave his way through the entire defense en route to an easy lay-in or kick out to a trailing teammate.
Meanwhile, Quinn Cook's frequently questionable shot selection can lead to plenty of those defensive rebound opportunities. Cook hoisted five three-pointers per game last season, sinking 37 percent. On any other team, that's a decent percentage, but Cook was constantly taking shots away from more consistent shooters like Andre Dawkins, Rasheed Sulaimon or Rodney Hood.
Cook's role could evolve into more of a combo guard with the addition of pass-first freshman Tyus Jones, but is that necessarily a good thing? Jones will need to be the assertive floor general to maneuver veteran scorers like Cook and Sulaimon into their best scoring positions, rather than a spectator as the other guards work on free-lancing isolation plays.
Carolina backup Nate Britt is no one's idea of a constant scoring threat, but he put up eight points, four assists and only one turnover in that final regular-season game. Freshman Joel Berry has gone toe to toe with Jones on multiple occasions, and he's frequently been the more aggressive player in those meetings. Berry can certainly play a physical game with Jones and likely can with Cook too.
Duke vs. UNC is always an entertaining matchup, but this year's point guard battle could be worth the price of admission by itself.
Shooting Guard: Virginia
The Matchup: Grayson Allen, Matt Jones and Rasheed Sulaimon vs. Malcolm Brogdon (pictured) and B.J. Stith
After an up-and-down non-conference slate, no one knew quite what to expect from Malcolm Brogdon entering ACC play. All he did was deliver double-figure scoring in every single regular-season conference game, and the Cavaliers' loss at Duke served to elevate the profiles of both player and team.
Brogdon delivered at the foul line late in the loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium, then struck for 23 in the rematch, which happened to come in the ACC championship game. He dropped 10 of those 23 in the final six minutes to cement UVa's No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.
The individual matchup between Brogdon and Sulaimon tilted toward the Duke side, as Sulaimon truly signaled his escape from his early doldrums by scoring 21 points. The second time around, however, Duke's guard was held to a mere deuce.
Brogdon stands 6'5" and nearly 220 pounds, a substantial size advantage over Duke's trio. Virginia's give-no-quarter pack-line defense will exploit that size advantage, playing a physical game that can take even the best shooters off their rhythm.
Sulaimon is used to battling the Virginia defense, but sophomore Matt Jones (22 minutes in the two games combined) and freshman Grayson Allen aren't quite so versed. Both will have to either play through contact or simply camp at the arc. Too much of the latter tactic will lead to a stagnant offense, which plays directly into the Cavs' hands.
A freshman himself, B.J. Stith is likely to be taken aback the first time he journeys to Cameron, but if he's inherited some of his father Bryant's toughness, he can still sink some daggers over the Devils.
Small Forward: North Carolina
The Matchup: Semi Ojeleye and Justise Winslow vs. Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and J.P. Tokoto (pictured)
The 3 is a pivotal position for Duke this season, as a great deal of the lineup speculation centers on whether Coach K starts high-energy freshman Justise Winslow or uses the spot for a third guard, likely allowing Cook and Jones to play together. Benching Winslow could leave the Blue Devils at a major size disadvantage in several matchups, including the ones against Carolina.
The Tar Heels, for their part, have a little of everything at their wing position. Junior J.P. Tokoto is a consummate defensive pest. Freshman Justin Jackson is a pure scorer with a silky outside touch. Fellow frosh Theo Pinson is somewhat of a happy medium between the two, blending the skills that Tokoto and Jackson lack on either end.
Winslow is known more for his defensive skills than his offense, as was Ojeleye before he spent his freshman year perfecting his splinter-picking. Jackson, the best scorer out of this bunch, gives up nearly 30 pounds to both, leaving him vulnerable to defensive bumps and offensive post-ups. Eventually, Jackson may find himself shunted to the backcourt.
Pinson and Tokoto are likewise undersized, and both struggle with their outside shooting to boot.
The two Duke forwards and the Carolina trio could conceivably play each other to a total standstill.
Finally, for anyone who asks: Yes, the temptation to simply paint each of these slides Carolina blue was strong, but the PG and SF positions were the only ones where I couldn't make a more serious case for another conference rival. Feel free to make—ahem—constructive suggestions in the comments.
Power Forward: Louisville
The Matchup: Amile Jefferson vs. Montrezl Harrell (pictured) and Jaylen Johnson
Entering last season, concerns ran high about Amile Jefferson's 195-pound frame standing up to the rigors of full-time ACC post play. Jefferson did reasonably well for himself, putting up 6.9 rebounds per game and shooting 64.4 percent from the floor, but he could occasionally be neutralized by bigger, stronger opponents.
Now comes a new ACC competitor who certainly qualifies as bigger and stronger. Louisville's Montrezl Harrell returning to college gave a lot of players room to mutter like Zach LaVine finding out he's headed to Minnesota.
Jefferson is one of the college game's hardest-working rebounders, and that's a club that also must include Harrell. The difference is that Harrell has about 40 more pounds behind him than Jefferson.
The primary weakness in Harrell's game is his free-throw shooting, but Duke lacks the interior depth to play Hack-a-Trez and dare him to convert from the line.
Freshman Jaylen Johnson enters college weighing around 210 pounds, making him a slightly more even physical matchup for Jefferson. Don't expect Harrell to leave the court much, though, unless referees' whistles force him to do so.
The Matchup: Jahlil Okafor and Marshall Plumlee vs. Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman and Chinonso Obokoh
Syracuse has veteran bulk in Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman. Duke has the nation's top freshman in Jahlil Okafor.
It's the irresistible force and the immovable object all over again.
Coleman and Christmas aren't pretty post players, and they have no illusions of being stretch big men. According to Hoop-Math.com, only 57 of their combined 160 shots came from the mid-range area last year.
The 240-pound Christmas and 280-pound Coleman will spend entire games leaning on any opponent who enters the paint against the Orange's 2-3 zone. Okafor hovers around 280 pounds himself, so he can certainly hang physically. It's how well Okafor adapts to the unorthodox Syracuse defense that will tell us a lot about how quickly he grasps the nuances of major college basketball.
Plumlee had a good second meeting with the Orange last season, carding five rebounds and three blocks in a dramatic Duke win at Cameron. Of course, that was without the injured Coleman in the lineup and Christmas finding himself in foul trouble.
That troublesome knee injury could hinder Coleman early this season as well, which would send the skinny Obokoh into action perhaps sooner than he's prepared for.
Fouls will be the major undoing of many opponents against Okafor, as he'll draw plenty of post touches on which he can fake and juke defenders into desperate grabs and hacks. Christmas is, however, one of the nation's better shot-blockers, so the rookie will need to go up strong every time.
As might be gathered from his look in the picture above, Christmas is a man who takes no mess in the lane.