By Kyle Corwin
That’s not typically the response you’d expect from a student-athlete when asked whether or not their team plans to play with a chip on its shoulder in the season to come.
You almost always get the politically correct, scripted soundbite that focuses on the individual’s desire to move on and forget about a past that had been marred by disappointment.
But Duke sophomore Marques Bolden is not going to pretend he is unaware of how last season ended for the basketball program, or that he would ever consider turning a blind eye to it.
Finishing 2017 with a second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament at the hands of eventual Final Four participant South Carolina did not provide any feelings of consolation, despite securing a conference-leading 20th ACC championship just one week prior.
Fully prepared to be a major piece in the revitalization of a team that belongs in the hunt at the end of March, the DeSoto, Tex., native has his sights set on a return to his home state for the Final Four in 2018.
To know where you’re going, however, you need to know where you’ve been, and Bolden recognizes that his short stay with Duke thus far has been less than ideal.
Prior to his arrival at Duke, Bolden was a McDonald’s All-American, a MaxPreps All-American and ranked the No. 16 overall prospect by ESPN. These are just a few of the accolades he collected leading up to the donning of the blue and white, but one could understand how the spotlight would eventually find the 6-foot-11 big man.
Averaging just 6.5 minutes per game over the course of 24 games in his freshman season last year, he struggled to find any consistency in the paint as a result, snagging only 1.5 points per game while battling injuries and trying to find his place in a lineup that was deep in the department of size.
Despite falling short of his own expectations in 2017, Bolden — who was named to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award preseason watch list (an award presented annually to the top center in the nation by the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame) in mid-October — has done everything he can to prepare for what many in the college basketball world believe will be a much stronger encore performance.
“My head and my focus are in a really good place right now,” Bolden said. “I’m just so excited with the talent that the coaching staff has brought in, as well as the way this team has gelled together. I’m also excited for the new opportunities I have and this team has this year.”
Bolden’s ability to think and play positively was cultivated significantly last year, playing under the wing of former Blue Devil Amile Jefferson, whose leadership and attentiveness to the Duke Way permeated throughout the program.
“Amile was a very smart player,” noted Bolden. “He would always preach playing hard. We’re the big guys of the team and we’re in the back of the defense so we see everything. Because of that, we have to talk and communicate about everything.”
Such wisdom has carried into Bolden’s sophomore year, as he understands the value of being a leader even with just one season under his belt.
“Being here only a year, I don’t have as much experience as some of the older guys on the team, but my leadership role will be very important because I feel like I will be able to help the young guys with things that I wish I would have known last year and help prepare them mentally for the battle we’re about to go through this season.”
Assisting the new and especially skilled freshmen will be key for Bolden entering the 2017-18 campaign, because he remembers the capabilities that existed up and down the roster last year and doesn’t want a team that has just as much promise — if not more — to fall short this year.
“The talent we had last year was crazy for a college team, and for us to not really reach full potential, that really hurt,” Bolden said. “So we don’t want to waste the talent we have this year.”
Bolden’s ambition is not significantly different than that of his teammates, or really any other Blue Devil who has worn Duke across his chest in years past, but it speaks to the program’s standard and mentality of excellence that has existed for decades.
Entering his second year, Bolden’s Blue Devils were ranked No. 1 in the AP Preseason Poll, the ninth time in program history and second consecutive year that Duke has claimed the top spot in the preseason rankings.
Bolden is aware that while being ranked No. 1 is an incredible honor, the only thing people will remember for years to come is how business is handled come tournament time. And with firepower that Duke is bringing into the battle that Bolden has emphasized time and time again, hopes for a sixth national championship will rest in the hands of how well the team’s aggressiveness and efficiency can be harnessed to best suit a roster that contains so much adaptability.
“What I’m looking forward to most about this particular team is how fast we can play and how versatile we are because we don’t really have initial positions off the bat,” Bolden said. “With Wendell (Carter Jr.), Marvin (Bagley III), Grayson (Allen) and Gary (Trent Jr.), there’s so many options out on the floor. It’s going to be hard to guard us.”
So as the start of the season approaches, the mission and expectation for Duke Basketball — both of which are no secret to anyone — remain: Hunting the sixth national championship that will be made tangible through a hanging banner, raised alongside the other five in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The only way to go about that according to Marques Bolden?
“To play as best we can by the time March comes.”