Everyone expected Duke to be good—but to be so good that would hand a second-ranked Kentucky team a 34-point beat down in its debut? Probably not. R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson had record-breaking nights in their first games as Blue Devils, with Cam Reddish posting an underappreciated 22 alongside his fellow freshman stars. Tre Jones facilitated as flawlessly as possible for a team that runs few plays and takes the term ‘positionless play’ to a whole new level, while Jack White, a somewhat forgotten face ahead of Tuesday night, added a double double off the bench.
Duke seemed unstoppable Tuesday night, but surely there’s a team or two who can at least threaten the Blue Devils’ dominance. We took at look at five teams that may have the best shot at posing a problem for what could be college basketball, and Coach K’s, best team in history. Some will take on Duke during the regular season this year, while others might have to wait until March to test the theory.
The Jayhawks are a definite contender for a team that could upset Duke simply because they’re equally as, if not more, talented than the Blue Devils this season. They may have lost perimeter talent after a trio of departures last year, but they are as well equipped in the paint as Duke’s big-bucket getters. The Blue Devils will have to compete with a Kansas frontcourt duo of junior transfer Dedric Lawson, a 6’ 9″ forward who scored 19.2 points per game for Memphis in 2016–17, and 7-foot junior Udoka Azubuike who also averaged in the double digits. Bill Self also boasts his own top-tier freshman faces, with five-star guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson in the Jayhawks backcourt. Both are incredible overall players with the speed, talent and shot-making ability to take on Duke’s loaded lineup, especially when you add in the frontcourt Kansas has this season. The Jayhawks entered the year as the top-ranked team in the country for a reason and would put up one heck of a fight if they were to face the Blue Devils.
2. Virginia (Jan. 19, Feb. 9)
The Cavaliers are one of the most likely suspects to upset the Blue Devils this season—and will be a key conference opponent along Duke’s already-anticipated route to the ACC title. Tony Bennett’s Pack-Line defense, in particular, could pose a problem for Duke’s star-studded roster. As we saw Tuesday, Duke thrives in the moment. They ran limited plays and dominated in the lane, barreling past defenders without taking too much time to stop and strategize. The Pack-Line defense doesn’t typically allow for such style of play, especially not when Bennett’s team does it well. Virginia floods the lane with defenders and forces long and tough three-pointers, often driving teams to take poor shots in a desperate attempt to restore a normal rhythm.
This is where Virginia has a chance to contain Duke’s scary scorers: even though Zion’s first bucket came off of a three, it was the only one he attempted all game. Barrett went 3 of 7 from deep, Reddish coming in behind him at 3 of 8. A sharp shooter like Alex O’Connell could still thrive in such a system, but Virginia could make it much more difficult for Duke’s freshman phenoms to dominate around the basket the way they did against Kentucky. Virginia, the best defensive team in the country, should force Duke to slow the pace, giving guys like Barrett and Williamson fewer opportunities to rack up the points in the paint. The methodical, often monotonous Pack Line stands in stark contrast to the type of free-flowing, up-tempo basketball Duke dominated with on Tuesday, which would make it challenging for Coach K’s crew to overcome.
3. Gonzaga (potential meeting in Maui)
The Zags are balanced enough to match Duke’s offensive output and potentially defend the Blue Devils a little better than Duke will defend them. They’ve got more experience and veteran talent than Coach K’s wildly young—and a little wild in general—freshman faces plus players who could arguably match guys like Williamson, Barrett and Reddish when it comes to getting buckets. Senior guard Josh Perkins is good and consistent, enough to play Duke better than probably just about anybody, especially alongside Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell, transfer Brandon Clarke and some talented underclassmen who will be sprinkled in the mix to fill out the Bulldogs rotation (if the Zags face Duke in a couple weeks at the Maui Invitational, however, they’ll be without Killian Tillie). Gonzaga is equally as talented, maybe a bit more balanced and definitely more experienced than Duke. They’ve got the length and two-way talent to keep up with the Blue Devils on both sides of the ball, with sufficient shooters to get big baskets and a frontcourt to contest the Duke freshmen’s sure flurry of shots at the rim.
4. Syracuse (Jan. 14, Feb. 23)
Ah, the zone. Syracuse has mastered limiting opposing offenses with its maddening 2–3 zone. Even teams that were prolific at scoring last season, like TCU and Arizona State, were stifled by the Orange’s zone in March Madness because it’s so hard to break free from it to find open looks. Duke will have to work hard against the Orange to get the looks they’ll want. Many would say the easier solution is a three-point shooting spree: beat the zone by shooting over it. Which, much like Virginia’s Pack Line, will likely be a problem for a team built around young and fiery rim-slashers who are used to using force in the field. You have to move the ball in and out of the zone to get good looks against Cuse, which is especially hard to do when you’re not playing against the 2–3 often throughout the season. It’ll be a different type of defense for the Blue Devils to deal with which is half of why it’s perfectly set up to pose a problem. Add in the fact that Syracuse is sneaky good at steals thanks to the zone—especially on fast breaks—and the fact that the Orange return five starters who have had time to master Jim Boeheim’s scheme, including National Player of the Year candidate Tyus Battle to lead the offense, and you’ve got a recipe for a plausible upset—at least on paper.
5. Florida State (Jan. 12)
The Seminoles don’t have the pure talent level of North Carolina, but they get the edge for our final spot due to a long, veteran defense that has given top teams trouble before. Florida State’s defensive-minded scheme served it well against traditionally high-output offensive teams last year like Gonzaga, Missouri, Xavier and Michigan in the NCAA tournament. The length and physicality that characterize Florida State’s consistently stingy defense held several top-ranked opponents to points per possession totals far lower than those teams were used to last March and could readily do the same to Duke. Florida State showed than same defensive dominance Tuesday, routing rival Florida to make an opening statement. The Seminoles held the Gators to just 20 points in the first half of play and allowed just 60 overall—20 of which came as the Gators attempted an unsuccessful comeback with just over five minutes remaining in the game. If Florida State can contain Duke by using the same strategy it did against Florida in the first half, the Blue Devils could have a tough time overcoming the ‘Noles veteran defenders.