Presbyterian-Duke Preview

BY foxsports • November 13, 2014

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) - A year after a freshman carried Duke, the Blue Devils are doubling down - and then some - on first-year players.

It's goodbye, Jabari Parker, and hello, Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen.

How well those four immediate-impact recruits adjust to the college game will determine whether Duke claims its fifth national title or whether the Blue Devils are a candidate to be knocked out of the NCAA tournament early - as they were by Mercer in Parker's only season in Durham.

Three of those freshmen - Okafor, Jones and Winslow - are penciled into vital roles, and Allen also should contribute as Duke begins what it hopes will be a special season by hosting Presbyterian on Friday night.

"College basketball's very young. If you look at the really good teams, or the teams that are projected to be very good, the majority of them are young," associate head coach Jeff Capel said. "It's a little bit abnormal to have seniors, especially seniors who have been pretty good for three years prior."

The Blue Devils enter Mike Krzyzewski's 35th season in Durham in their customary spot among the favorites to win the Atlantic Coast Conference and make a strong push for their 12th Final Four under their Hall of Fame coach.

For that to happen, the upperclassmen will have to grow comfortable in their supporting roles around that talented freshman class - especially Okafor and Jones, friends since the third grade who committed to Duke last fall during a nationally televised, split-screen joint ceremony from their high schools in Chicago and Minnesota.

"All four of these guys have been just like younger brothers," said point guard Quinn Cook, the team's only scholarship senior. "It's made my job a lot easier as a leader."

Okafor averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds as a high school senior, then became the fourth Duke player to earn the MVP award at the McDonald's All-America game. Winslow and Jones - who scored 25 points per game as a senior - also played in that all-star game.

"I think we're similar in a lot of ways. ... Basketball's our first love," Okafor said of his relationship with Jones. "We both just want to win, and that's ultimately what brought us to the same university."

The 6-foot-11 Okafor, who was dominant in team scrimmages that were open to the public, will be the focal point. A center hasn't led the Blue Devils in scoring since Elton Brand in 1999. Okafor says the coaches "want me to focus on being the most dominant player in college basketball this year. They feel that's the best chance for us to win."

The most discussed position battle at Duke this offseason was at point guard, where Cook and Jones are the top candidates. One possibility is that Jones and Cook - who has averaged nine points during his career - play together.

"I didn't look at him as a threat," Cook said of Jones. "When he committed, I looked at it as another opportunity for us to be really good. I never looked at it as a competition thing."

Capel says his team has six guards who "are capable of playing big-time minutes and being contributors."

In addition to Tyus Jones and Cook, that list figures to include junior Rasheed Sulaimon, sophomore Matt Jones and Allen and Winslow. It took a while for Sulaimon to settle into his role last year playing with Parker and Rodney Hood, but he found his stroke in the second half, hitting double figures in 11 of the last 14 games.

Duke's talented freshmen will be trying to help their school avoid an embarrassing skid in the opener. The Blue Devils haven't lost three straight games since the end of 2006-07. Duke entered the offseason on a two-game slide, falling to Virginia in the ACC tournament final before being knocked off by Mercer in the signature upset of the NCAA tournament.

That shouldn't be too difficult for Krzyzewski's crew to avoid. Presbyterian is coming off a 6-26 season and was picked to finish 10th of 11 teams in the Big South.

The Blue Devils' primary focus figures to be containing senior guard Jordan Downing, a second-team all-conference preseason pick who averaged 20.2 points last season.

The Blue Hose had the nation's ninth-worst rebounding differential (minus-6.4) a year ago, a problem that seems unlikely to go away with Okafor patrolling the paint.

Presbyterian has visited Cameron Indoor Stadium twice since 2008, losing by a combined 72 points.

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