Duke Looks For Breakout Play By Seth Curry, Rasheed Sulaimon in 2012-13

Midnight Madness is over, and with it went the smoke machines, dunk contests and laser shows that kick off the season. College basketball begins now, and while the excitement still remains it’s time to peel the hype back and see who the nation’s best truly are. That’s why Dime has you covered with individual previews of the nation’s top 15 teams and a few others just outside, all over the course of the next few weeks. Today, Duke.

Asked in July the biggest difference between this year’s Duke team and last year’s edition that lost in the NCAA Tournament’s second round to Lehigh, Seth Curry joked, “We like each other.” Curry quickly clarified that he meant the current Blue Devils spend more time together off the court, which presumably would breed improved on-court chemistry. However, that didn’t stop speculation that Austin Rivers – who led the team in scoring, but also in turnovers – might not be missed as much as one might think.

Though he wasn’t a flawless college player, Rivers’ talents were undeniable. And one could make the case that he took it upon himself so frequently out of necessity; ostensibly, if other players were ready or willing to step up, Rivers was likely to have deferred more often.

Picking up the slack after Rivers’ departure for the NBA is center Mason Plumlee, who eschewed the NBA Draft and is primed for an All-American senior season. But in order for Duke to improve on last year’s 27-7 record, they’ll need some other things to break right. The most likely candidate?

Freshman point guard Quinn Cook‘s breakout performance was right before Christmas last season against UNC-Greensboro, when he came off the bench to shoot 6-for-7 en route to 14 points. That night, Rivers told Dime: “There’s been times when his (playing time) has been limited this season, and he came in and played great, so now his time is going to keep going up and up and up, and that’s just going to help us.”

But the good times didn’t last. After being named ACC Freshman of the Week two weeks in a row and earning four starts, some first-year defensive issues and a balky right knee led to a short leash. Cook finished the season firmly behind steady but unspectacular sophomore Tyler Thornton in the rotation, despite outscoring Thornton and basically matching him in assists despite playing literally half as much.

A solid passer and creative at the rim, Cook’s knee is now supposedly completely healthy. Krzyzewski has named him the starter, which should have a ripple effect on the entire team. Plumlee, for one, should be ecstatic; he was a world-beater for eight games before Kyrie Irving injured his toe two years ago, and had to work way too hard for offense last season with Thornton’s deficiencies in playmaking and pushing the tempo. How far Duke goes this year depends heavily on whether Cook is up to the challenge. But if you looked close last year, you saw signs that maybe this year’s ascendance is overdue.

“We weren’t a good defensive team at all last year,” Plumlee said at Operation Basketball. “When we were able to win, we just outscored people. But when it mattered most, when we really needed to stop someone, we weren’t able to do that.”

That was truly a foreign concept for a team whose defense is usually its hallmark. The 2011-12 Blue Devils ranked 70th in the country in Ken Pomeroy‘s defensive efficiency rating; they hadn’t ranked lower than No. 20 in any of the previous nine seasons. The issues emanated from the backcourt, as Curry, Rivers and Thornton were hardly lockdown defenders. With Alex Murphy redshirting and Michael Gbinije unable to crack the lineup, Duke also had a serious gap at small forward, leading to mismatches such as the 6-foot-1 Thornton attempting to guard 6-foot-8 Harrison Barnes.

Cook and talented freshman Rasheed Sulaimon assuming major roles in the backcourt will help with defensive fundamental improvement a focus. And the talented Murphy is poised to show that the fix to last year’s small forward issue might have been right under their nose.

“I think Alex has a chance to be really an outstanding player,” Krzyzewski said at Duke’s media day. “When you see him in person now, he’s over 220 (pounds) … he looks like Kyle (Singler). I mean, Kyle was the third all-time leading scorer at Duke and had the heart of a lion. But (Murphy) can do some of those things for us.”

For a five-star recruit, Sulaimon flew under the radar compared to his more demonstrative peers. But with Curry dealing with a leg injury that Krzyzewski acknowledges could hamper him all season, Sulaimon could end up seeing his role become ever more crucial. Starting for Curry in Duke’s first exhibition against Western Washington, Sulaimon scored 18 first-half points en route to a 20-point game.

“He had an unbelievable first half and it started off with the first play,” Krzyzewski said following Duke’s win. “We called a certain thing and he made a read that was the opposite of what the play was, but it was the right read. And for a freshman on his first play to have the guts to make a read and follow his instincts, it’s impressive for me.”

Might Duke be better off with Sulaimon starting over Curry, regardless of health? The freshman offers athleticism and defensive chops the senior simply doesn’t, and Curry’s savvy might fit in a sixth-man role. It’s entirely possible: Krzyzewski is traditionally loyal to his upperclassmen, but not necessarily to a fault.

The last time Duke entered a season with expectations this low, it was 2009-10, and they ended up winning the national title. But then you look at their roster that year, and it was obvious they should have been held in much higher esteem. This year’s team isn’t nearly as talented.

Still, Duke has a solid senior nucleus of Plumlee, Curry and Ryan Kelly – who was sorely missed when he injured his foot before postseason play last year. If Cook clicks and Murphy and Sulaimon are as advertised, there’s no reason Duke can’t contend for the ACC title. And if everything breaks right, worse teams have made the Final Four in recent years.

“I’m 65 years old and I’ve been doing this for 38 years,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m still fresh and excited about what I do, and I think (Team USA) helped me a lot.”

It seemed incongruous for the same guy who coached the Olympic team to another gold medal this past summer to have lost in the first round of the NCAA’s last season. With Krzyzewski seemingly rejuvenated, don’t expect that to happen again.

What is Duke’s ceiling this season?

Follow Bryan on Twitter at @sportsangle.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.