The argument would be easier to make had the Blue Devils not won the 2015 national basketball championship. Still, many regard Duke, far more than Kentucky, as a poster child for a program that’s sold its academic soles by relying on one-and-done players.
Now that Duke failed to reach the Final Four for the seventh time in eight seasons and expects another top-rated freshman class to dominate its starting lineup next year, the chatter is sure to intensify.
Then again, if Grayson Allen had made his driving shot against Kansas as regulation play expired in last month’s Elite Eight — a coda somehow appropriate to his operatic career — we’d be talking about Duke’s two assaults in four seasons on the game’s summit. The trips then could be offered as competitive validation for use of one-year wonders, a benign category of basketball mercenaries that filled seven of 10 starter’s spots on the ’15 and ’18 squads.
But Allen’s shot didn’t fall. Make or miss, the team’s senior was destined to be part of an exodus that's already swept Duke’s 2018 starting lineup clean out the door. The departure of freshman Wendell Carter Jr. was announced Monday.
That scouring, and the critical reaction it engenders, is a curious antithesis of Duke’s portrayal when it challenged for the national title in 1990 amid a run of seven Final Four appearances in nine seasons (1986 through 1994). Back then, the Blue Devils were widely celebrated as model student-athletes, the program a paragon, particularly when contrasted with Nevada-Las Vegas, the reigning national court colossus.
Mike Krzyzewski’s players defied fashion and stayed in college, too. Every original ACC member had players leave early for the pros before Duke, which lost three after a great 1999 squad finished 37-2 and fell short in the NCAA title game.
These days, critics question, usually indirectly, Krzyzewski’s commitment to gathering athletes of similar academic quality to that of his earlier Duke squads.
Meanwhile, the latest program heralded as a model, with ample justification, is Villanova, the national champ for the second time in three years. Jay Wright’s Wildcats are saluted for their stable core and continuity, their 100 percent basketball graduation rate and their on-court team orientation, all accomplished with a roster light on NBA lottery picks.
A similar theme was sounded most of this season and in recent years about Tony Bennett’s Virginia program. In many eyes, both the Cavaliers and the Wildcats, the nation’s top-ranked teams for the bulk of the 2018 season, represent college basketball done the right way, reliant on developing players and teams over time.
For all their old-fashioned virtues as programs, Villanova and UVa don’t lack for talent. Between them, they produced four pro draft picks in the last three seasons, one of them the 2017 NBA rookie of the year, the Cavs’ Malcolm Brogdon, as well as the ‘18 national player of the year, Villanova’s Jalen Brunson.
The schools’ showing pales in comparison with Duke. Feeding at the top of the recruiting food chain, the Devils had three first- and second-round selections in last year’s draft alone and seven since 2015. This June they could have at least five more.
“We have always just tried to recruit the best player who fits academically, talent and character-wise,” Krzyzewski said during the ’18 NCAAs. “And it just happens that, it's not like we changed to go one-and-done or whatever, the world changed. We didn't change. The world changed.”
That statement comes across as both self-serving and realistic, depending on your predilection. Krzyzewski long ago came to terms with a deep level of skepticism directed at his program and his comments about it, a reception he considers a price of success.
Yet when Wright was asked at the Final Four about Villanova’s highly-praised approach, he had much the same thing to say about his recruiting aspirations. In fact, he sounded like numerous coaches at high-level programs who speak of their reliance on well-blended, well-seasoned upperclassmen. “Well, the reason we stick to it is we can't get the one-and-done guys,” Wright said frankly. “We're trying. We really are.”
Further contradicting the popular narrative, the coach noted he’d viewed Brunson as a possible one-and-done prospect during the recruiting process. “And then,” Wright continued, “we hope that after one year of enjoying the college experience, they have a really difficult decision to make that the NBA wants you, but you really enjoy college. Rather than come to college saying I want to get out as soon as I can.”
Rising sentiment against colleges accommodating single-season pit stops reflects a hardening of Wright’s benign view and is conflated with the bribery scandal that lurks at the edges of NCAA prosperity. The issue is likely to be addressed by the NCAA’s ad hoc Commission on College Basketball in an April 25 report. Chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the group reportedly may try to smother collegiate corruption by reaching down to youth basketball (ages 10-17) – potentially controversial interference with players’ freedom in a realm generally beyond the NCAA’s purview.
However the college-to-pro pipeline is changed, it almost certainly won’t be applicable next season when, given expectations, Krzyzewski faces one of the more formidable challenges of his career.
For all their talent, and Krzyzewski’s considerable track record molding teams at the highest competitive levels, the ’18 Blue Devils sporadically reaffirmed the old adage that there’s no substitute for experience. “We’re trying to condense four years into eight months,” Krzyzewski acknowledged in March.
If anything, the 2018-19 version of the Blue Devils will be even greener. Duke returns no steadying upperclass starter like Allen, let alone a leader with some facility having the ball in his hands.
The program also must replace a key supportive influence now that associate head coach Jeff Capel left to direct the Pittsburgh program. The remaining assistants are all former Blue Devils; only newcomer Chris Carrawell has coached in another program, with four years at Marquette under fellow Duke grad Steve Wojciechowski.
With Capel gone, no one on the bench besides Krzyzewski has any head-coaching experience. That absence may rob a potentially ingrown and deferential staff of a touch of fresh perspective at an especially inopportune time.