Duke looks like a championship contender in 2013, even if there are lingering concerns about what the construct of the offensive midfield is going to look like and what, exactly, the Devils will get out of the cage with Dan Wigrizer and Kyle Turri. There is talent all over the roster, and the defense -- fresh with Casey Carroll, Chris Hipps, Henry Lobb, and Dan DiMaria -- may be the perfect complement to an offense that will feature Josh Dionne, Christian Walsh, Jordan Wolf, and freshman sensation Case Matheis. Everything is there for Duke to make a run at its second national title, but one umbrella concern leaves the Devils' potential run at Memorial Monday in question: Can Duke survive its schedule?
Let's smash this thing to bits with a blogging sledgehammer.
At the Starting Line
February 9: Denver; February 10: Jacksonville; February 16: Notre Dame; February 17: Mercer; February 22: @ Pennsylvania
Over the last four seasons the Devils have become notoriously slow starters. A combination of front-loading the spring schedule and John Danowski's odd approach to the fall season likely has contributed to this situation over the last half-decade or so. The struggles are well documented, but in all four periods the Devils have turned it on when it mattered most:
- 2009: Started the year 2-2. Finished the year 15-4.
- 2010: Started the year 2-3. Finished the year 16-4 (National Champion).
- 2011: Started the year 1-2. Finished the year 14-6.
- 2012: Started the year 3-3. Finished the year 15-5.
This season may or may not mirror the last few in how Duke gets off the launching pad. As noted above, the Devils have some questions entering the season that they'll need to address through January, and if they're not ready to go they may take some shots to face early on again: The Pioneers are easily a top 10 concern to start the year and remain a dangerous offensive squad; Notre Dame will likely enter 2013 somewhere within or around the top five in the country and, despite important defensive losses, could actually be more improved and a better balanced team next spring compared to what they were in 2012; and Pennsylvania has a lot of juice on them right now -- I'm still a little skeptical, but whatever -- and as the last stop that Duke will make in a five-game February could provide a stiff test considering all the circumstances at work. If Duke can get out of this stretch above .500 -- which isn't asking too much considering the two games against Mercer and Jacksonville and a "should win" against the Quakers -- the Devils should be in good shape.
"Oh, You Toppled Berlin? Good. Now Go Invade Moscow."
March 2: Maryland; March 8: Loyola; March 13: @ North Carolina; April 12: Virginia; April 26 & 28: Cockamamie ACC Tournament
That's four teams -- three that Duke may see more than once -- all within the top 15 or so in the country; three of those teams -- Maryland, Loyola, and North Carolina -- all have top-five potential and are in the conversation to raise hell in Philadelphia at the end of May. It's not just the quality of competition that makes this so difficult for Duke; it's how and when the Devils are going to see these teams: the three-game stretch of Terps-'Hounds-'Heels comes in consecutive weeks, with only 11 days separating the start of the gauntlet and its end. Moreover, those games will occur right after Duke's five-game February featuring two of the better teams in the country. There is little rest here in attempting to summit the mountain.
Then Duke has the luxury -- I'm not sure that's exactly the right word, but I'm going with it -- of ending its April with the potential of two games over a weekend in Chapel Hill to decide the ACC Tournament. Whether the Devils see Maryland, Carolina, or Virginia over that weekend matters very little as each of those programs should be hitting their late-spring stride at that point, providing increased competition when Duke's legs and mental constitution may be a little tired after pushing through 14 previous games against some of the best programs in the land. None of this is easily manageable, and Danowski is going to have his work cut out for him yet again.
March 16: Towson; March 23: Georgetown; March 30: @ Harvard
Duke is more talented than all of these teams, and the Devils' ceiling is higher than the trio as well, but weird stuff happens when the elite play the under-elite in March. These three games happen right after Duke finishes its merciless start to the season and could provide upset potential should the Devils check-out before their April push.