College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 4 Duke reloads for another season with another highly touted freshman. This time, though, may be different than the one-and-done seasons from Jabari Parker and Kyrie Irving. This year’s top rookie Jahlil Okafor perhaps has the highest ceiling of any of them with his rare game in the post. Will that be enough for Duke in the postseason? The Blue Devils have been a national contender as usual, but they’ve also gone one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three years.
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With a young core and no guarantees that it will have time to mature together, Duke again finds itself in the situation that produced last season’s wild but ultimately unsatisfying ride.
Last year’s Blue Devils featured two NBA first-rounders in freshman Jabari Parker and transfer Rodney Hood. Despite the talent, the team failed to find a consistently winning formula. The Blue Devils won 26 games and reached the ACC Tournament final but lost to Mercer in their NCAA opener.
It’s against that backdrop that Duke welcomes a top-ranked recruiting class headlined by center Jahlil Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones, two players expected to have short stays in college.
Also in the class are forward Justise Winslow and shooting guard Grayson Allen. They’ll join a roster stocked with veterans, many of whom have shown — but for various reasons haven’t consistently reached — immense potential.
Once again, a team built on a foundation that might not be intact beyond this season will have a short window in which to see how far it can go.
“I would like the guys we bring in to stay longer,” says Mike Krzyzewski. “Because you can make them better, they make you better and you develop a bigger bond. ... But we have a great opportunity to bring in great kids who are really good players. So we have to keep trying to figure it out.”
No. 4 Duke Blue Devils Facts & Figures
Last season: 26-9, 13-5 ACC
Postseason: NCAA round of 64
Consecutive NCAAs: 19
Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (910-247 at Duke, 362-149 ACC)
ACC Projection: First
Postseason Projection: NCAA Final Four
Krzyzewski is known for his loathing of position labels. He feels they can limit what players feel they’re capable of. But labels or not, last season’s front line sorely lacked definition. Parker, who could be dangerous playing on the wing, spent plenty of time down low. When Parker wasn’t down there, slender 6-9 forward Amile Jefferson was the one tasked with taking on opposing centers, often at a significant size disadvantage.
While this season’s bunch will feature plenty of youth, the Blue Devils’ new pieces should provide more clarity.
The days of yearning for a viable option at center will end as Okafor should be one of the league’s top big men immediately. Krzyzewski has made it clear that he’d like to make the 7-foot Okafor a focal point.
Junior Marshall Plumlee, another 7-footer, will again try to find a spot in the rotation. He’s shown the same fire but little of the production of his two older brothers, both former Duke centers.
Jefferson should be able to slide over to the more comfortable forward role and get help from Winslow and Semi Ojeleye, a brawny but untested sophomore.
Few position battles will be juicier than the one between Jones and senior point guard Quinn Cook.
Thus far, Cook has shown himself to be capable of electrifying highs and puzzling lows. Last season offered a glimpse of his inconsistency. He scored in double figures in 13 of the Blue Devils’ first 15 games but was left out of the starting lineup in the final 10.
Krzyzewski has pointed to a lack of on-court leadership as one of last season’s downfalls, while praising Jones’ leadership ability.
As a senior, Cook will have every opportunity to be Duke’s prime ball-handler, but with Jones in the mix, he’ll be pushed. However, Duke’s willingness to go with a guard-heavy lineup means that the two could play together at times.
Like Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon has crammed a lot of good moments and some forgettable ones into his Duke career. He had a slow start to his sophomore season, which included a rare healthy scratch against Michigan. But by season’s end, he’d elbowed his way into the starting lineup and become a key piece of the backcourt equation.
Allen and sophomore Matt Jones, whom Krzyzewski has singled out for his defense, will also figure heavily into the mix.
Krzyzewski has stressed that down seasons, which with Duke’s high standards would likely include 2013-14, can be useful if there are lessons that can be learned from them. In this case, Krzyzewski and his staff have taken a look at how they can better instill an understanding of the program’s bedrocks — like fierce-but-disciplined defense and effective on-court communication — in players who may only be on campus for a short period.
Duke has the pieces to make a run at an ACC title and maybe more. The only question the Blue Devils face is: Will they find the right fit in time?
Jahlil Okafor, a 7’0” center, has the body and game that could make him the latest in Duke’s line of one-and-done stars. Court vision and a dangerous jumper could put point guard Tyus Jones on that track, too. Justise Winslow, a 6’6” forward, will fit nicely on the wing. Athletic guard Grayson Allen should see minutes.