Even while recovering from surgery, Mike Krzyzewski can still reel in elite talent. But that hasn’t really been Duke’s issue lately, has it?
The Blue Devils already had talent, loads of it, from their freshmen to Grayson Allen. With Marvin Bagley III committing Monday night, only a day after Krzyzewski underwent an unscheduled knee replacement, the Blue Devils now have a seven-player incoming class that includes ESPN’s top-ranked player at four different positions: point guard, shooting guard and power forward twice, since Bagley still holds that rank in the class of 2018 even as he attempts to enroll at Duke early.
Assuming he successfully reclassifies to this incoming class, Bagley gives Duke an instant boost of elite talent that will no doubt send the Blue Devils into the season as the No. 1 team in the country. Again.
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Duke, which has won more national titles in September than anyone but Kentucky – both programs each have one actual title in the one-and-done era – will once again go into the season with an embarrassing wealth of talent and a corresponding lack of experience. That is a tricky formula for Duke, which hasn’t always been able to turn its recruiting success into NCAA tournament success.
It’s another chance for the Blue Devils to prove 2015 was not merely an exception to the rule that encompasses Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum and all the other teams constructed around star freshmen that couldn’t win more than two games in the NCAA tournament.
It’s still an open question whether continuing to recruit the absolute best talent – which for this NBA-focused generation means players almost certain to stay in college for only one year – is compatible with Duke’s basketball DNA, the core principles of what has made it one of the dominant programs in the country for more than a generation. (Never mind Duke’s academic DNA, but in a world where the NCAA still insists on “student-athlete” as required nomenclature, Duke is hardly alone in that respect.)
There’s a weird dichotomy at work here. Only eight programs have won a national title since 2003, and Duke is one of them, twice, with an older team in 2010 and a younger team in 2015. It’s hard to argue with that. At the same time, it’s still shocking to see these extraordinarily, unquestionably talented Duke teams to struggle to make it out of the first weekend over and over again. It’s really the sink-or-swim dynamic that’s so jarring.
Was 2015’s success the product of a uniquely cohesive freshman class that arrived on campus with the kind of chemistry that usually takes years to develop? Or was it merely that 2015 had, in Tyus Jones, the kind of elite point guard capable of coercing all that raw talent into congruence?
If it’s the latter, things bode well for the Blue Devils over the next two seasons, with incoming freshman Trevon Duval and 2018 commitment Tre Jones, Tyus’ younger brother, both potentially capable of doing what Tyus did in 2015 – as point guards, at least. (It’s probably too much to ask of them to be the kind of inherently clutch player Tyus was, although if it’s in the Jones genes, Tre’s got a shot.)
If it’s the former, then Duke still has something to prove this season. The names and faces may change from year to year, but that question hasn’t.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock