The story of the 2015 Duke team didn’t end last April when the Blue Devils cut down the nets in Indianapolis.
It’s still playing out in Durham today.
The 2015-16 season – the one currently featuring the program’s first three-game losing streak in nine years – is a component of the story, too.
Part of the tradeoff that came from loading up on the young stars necessary to win the title last season – Justise Winslow, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones – included entering this season shorthanded on talented bodies. One of the weakest incoming recruiting classes in years didn’t lend itself to successfully remaking a roster on the fly.
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Still, perspective: No. 20 Duke (14-5, 3-3 ACC) has lost its three conference games this season by a combined 11 points, and all of the losses were one-possession games where Duke had a chance to tie or take the lead with 30 seconds left on the clock.
This isn’t a terrible team with no talent. It’s a team with five capable guards (but no adequate point guard) and one post player. That six-man combination and rotation isn’t ideal in any situation.
N.C. State (11-8, 1-5), with its quick and nimble point guard Cat Barber and size inside, will be the next team to challenge the shorthanded Blue Devils when Duke travels to Raleigh on Saturday.
How did this happen to Duke? It’s not hard to figure out.
In the 21 years since coach Mike Krzyzewski returned to the bench after stepping away midseason in 1994-95 to heal his back, Duke has only used more than eight players in its rotation four times: 1996-97, 1997-98, 2002-03, 2008-09.
Nine players averaged at least 10 minutes a game. And none of those were great, ideal Duke teams. The 1997-98 team made the Elite Eight, but the other three lost at least seven games and all bowed out in the Sweet 16.
If all is well in Durham, the rotation will not go beyond eight players. Krzyzewski prefers to play his best players. That’s part of the philosophy that has won him more than 1,000 games. Even with USA Basketball, with the best players in the world on his bench, just seven of Krzyzewski’s players played at least 10 minutes in the 2012 gold-medal win over Spain.
At the end of last year’s fall signing period, the Blue Devils could have reasonably expected to have at least 10 scholarship players this season, barring any late additions in the spring: Chase Jeter, Luke Kennard, Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen, Sean Obi, Semi Ojeleye, Matt Jones, Amile Jefferson, Rasheed Sulaimon and Marshall Plumlee. Brandon Ingram was a possible 11th when he made his decision in the spring.
Four- and five-star recruits generally don’t want to be Nos. 9 and 10 on Duke’s bench, so Ojeleye transferred. Sulaimon was dismissed from the team in January. Tyus Jones, who wasn’t expected to be a one-and-done player, helped Duke win a national championship and his draft stock allowed him to be a first-round pick.
So in early April, Duke suddenly had just seven scholarship players for this year: Jeter, Kennard, Allen, Obi, Matt Jones, Jefferson, Plumlee. By then, the staff knew that Obi, who transferred from Rice, was a step too slow to guard ACC players – missed evaluations happen – so realistically Duke had six capable players in a best-case scenario.
The first thing the Blue Devils did was grab an available body. Antonio Vrankovic did not have a single high-major offer, but Duke had scholarships available and took a flyer on a project with good size (6-foot-11) and bloodlines (his father, Stojko, had a five-year NBA career in the 1990s). Vrankovic was a long shot from the start.
The 2015 recruiting class was one of the weakest in years, but Krzyzewski and assistant coach Jeff Capel secured a commitment from the best available player in the spring: Ingram. The staff also persuaded Derryck Thornton to bypass his senior year of high school and enroll early, another huge win. So Duke reloaded as best it could through recruiting on short notice.
During the preseason, the Blue Devils felt they had the makings of a nice eight-man rotation: Thornton, Allen, Kennard, Jones, Ingram, Jeter, Jefferson and Plumlee.
But Jeter, a freshman, has had a far tougher adjustment to the college game than anyone expected. This became a huge problem when Jefferson broke his right foot in a mid-December practice.
After Duke beat Virginia Tech on Jan. 9, Krzyzewski said of Jeter, “Obviously we’d like for him to be way ahead of where he is, but he’s trying.” But Jeter’s next game against Clemson on Jan. 13 was disastrous. In four minutes, he grabbed one rebound and recorded five fouls, fouling out with 9 minutes, 35 seconds left to play.
In 25 minutes against ACC competition, Jeter has two points, three rebounds and 13 fouls. He is not ready to play at this level. And Jeter isn’t the only highly touted freshman big to struggle.
Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere, once thought to be in contention for the No. 1 pick in this year’sNBA draft, lost his starting spot and played just eight minutes in the Wildcats’ loss at Auburn last week.
In Duke’s last two games, Obi has been the one to play one or two minutes to protect Plumlee from taking a foul before a TV timeout.
But against Syracuse, Obi was called for a foul after giving up an offensive rebound to DaJuan Coleman in his first-half minute. In Obi’s second-half minute, Thornton dribbled into the zone, got stuck and tried to pass him the ball down low, but Obi fumbled it out of bounds. Krzyzewski promptly stood up and yelled at Thornton to not pass Obi the ball again.
So when Obi is in, Duke is playing 4-on-5 offensively and about 4.5-on-5 defensively because Obi never leaves the paint on defense. He’s not fast enough to keep up with his man along the perimeter, which is not compatible with ball-screen defense.
That leaves Duke with six rotation players while Jefferson recovers from his broken foot. It’s not ideal, but it’s what Duke has.
When the confetti fell in Indianapolis last April, Duke hit the jackpot on its one-year title window. Next year, the Blue Devils will again be in contention for a preseason No. 1 ranking. Everyone other than Ingram, Jefferson and Plumlee should return, and one of the top recruiting classes in the country will join them.
Part of the reality that comes from signing the best players is a high amount of roster turnover. And in some years it will be difficult to reload.
“I have said this since Amile got out, the margin between us winning and losing is narrow and we are a good team, but we are not that good,” Krzyzewski said after the loss to Notre Dame on Jan. 16. “We are called Duke and we are coached by me, and we need to realize who we are in our attention to detail at little things, we have to get better.”