No team in the country faces a challenge as unique as this year's Duke Blue Devils.
A proud program coming off a season in which it missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995 would present enough pressure. But add the fact that this is Mike Krzyzewski's final season on the Duke bench, with his successor, Jon Scheyer, already on staff as an associate head coach, and the anticipation is amped up even further.
Three starting players return in junior forward Wendell Moore Jr., sophomore point guard Jeremy Roach and sophomore center Mark Williams. But they are among only four scholarship players who are back from last season's team.
Maybe that's a good thing, since Duke stumbled to a 13–11 record before a COVID-19 cluster in the program ended the season in the ACC Tournament.
So the Blue Devils have reloaded with the nation's No. 4 recruiting class, paced by top-10 freshmen Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin, plus a pair of graduate transfer big men in 6'9", 242-pound center Theo John (Marquette) and 6'8", 222-pound forward Bates Jones (Davidson).
The good thing, from Krzyzewski's point of view, is that he could spend the summer getting to know his players and fully assimilating them into the program. His retirement plan meant he didn't need to be on the road recruiting since Scheyer and fellow assistants Chris Carrawell and Nolan Smith were tasked with attracting players for 2022 and beyond.
As Krzyzewski says, he's retiring next year. He's not retired yet.
"I want to coach my team," Krzyzewski says. "I want to give them 100 percent. I want this to be as good of a basketball team as we've had in my 46 years. That's the main thing I'm focused on."
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mike Krzyzewski
2020-21 RECORD (ACC): 13-11 (9-9)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: None
G Jordan Goldwire (5.8 ppg, 4.0 apg)
F Matthew Hurt (18.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
F Jalen Johnson (11.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
G DJ Steward (13.0 ppg, 2.4 apg)
The 7'0" Williams emerged late last season as a force, averaging 16.7 points over Duke's final six games. His 23-point, 19-rebound game in an ACC Tournament win over Louisville gave the Blue Devils something positive to carry into this season. Duke smartly added John, who started 87 games over the last three seasons at Marquette, to provide experience along with him.
The athletic Banchero slides in as a stretch-4 forward who can score from anywhere while contributing rebounds on both ends of the court. He's projected as a possible No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Jones, a reserve during his Davidson career, figures to have the same role at Duke, giving the Blue Devils depth in case of injury.
Duke is deep on the wing and at shooting guard with the 6'5" Moore the most experienced hand. Freshman Trevor Keels, at 6'5", gives Duke needed size at shooting guard, as does the 6'6", 222-pound Griffin — a projected NBA Draft lottery pick — at small forward. They will be key cogs in Duke's rotation.
Roach returns at point guard needing to limit his turnovers while improving his 31.3 percent shooting on 3-pointers. Look for Roach and Keels, former Virginia high school teammates, to bond quickly.
Senior Joey Baker, a 6'6" small forward, projects as a shooter off the bench.
Aiming to send Krzyzewski out with another Final Four run, these Blue Devils have the skill to compete for ACC and NCAA championships. Their coach's farewell tour will bring even more attention to a program that already lives in the national spotlight.
During the offseason, Krzyzewski had no recruiting responsibility. He last coached a USA Basketball team in international play in 2016, so that role is no longer a distraction.
Instead, it is now all about preparing his final Duke team to win.
Having experienced returning starters like Moore, Roach and Williams give the Blue Devils a strong base to build upon. Those three, joined by five-star recruits like Banchero, Griffin and Keels, give the Blue Devils the pieces that make a storybook sendoff possible.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Elite Eight
ACC Prediction: 1