Looking to next season, Duke faces losses, but potential abounds
No doubt the pain Duke’s players and coaches felt following Friday’s 78-71 upset loss to Mercer in the NCAA Tournament will linger for quite some time.
The same was true two years ago, when the highly-regarded Blue Devils were ousted from the tournament by Lehigh.
During that offseason, coach Mike Krzyzewski reevaluated everything in the program to ensure the Duke basketball was being run such that it could live up to its lofty established standards. The same will be true in light of this latest stunning postseason defeat.
With all that in mind, where does Duke go from here? The Blue Devils are coming off a 26-9 season that included their fewest wins and most losses since 2006-07, seven years ago.
Banners are hung in Cameron Indoor Stadium to celebrate ACC championships, Final Four appearances and NCAA championships. Duke has gone three seasons without an ACC championship and four seasons without a Final Four or national championship.
At age 67, Krzyzewski’s retirement day is approaching. He said last Thursday, the day before the loss to Mercer, that retirement wasn’t on his mind.
He’s also said he couldn’t see himself coaching the U.S. Olympic team while not still the Duke coach. So everything points toward him coaching the Blue Devils for at least two more seasons through the 2016 Olympics.
He’s made no indication that he won’t continue coaching past age 70.
So the man who brought Duke four NCAA championships and 11 Final Four appearances isn’t going to stand idly by while the Blue Devils shrink on the national scene.
Duke has a star-studded recruiting class already signed for next season that will have it in the NCAA conversation again. But there are plenty of questions around Duke basketball heading into next season.
Here are five of them:
Will Jabari Parker and/or Rodney Hood return?
This question is listed first because it impacts everything for Duke. Parker and Hood were Duke’s two leading scorers this season. They are both projected as first-round picks in this summer’s NBA Draft. While Friday’s loss is a black mark on their college careers, and will be considered in their decision-making process, it’s hard to see either returning to the Blue Devils.
Hood has already spent three years in college — one at Mississippi State, two at Duke since transferring. Parker has been at Duke one year, but he’s expected to go within the first five picks of the draft so he’d be delaying a multi-million dollar contract by staying.
Would they benefit basketball-wise by staying? Of course. But nothing points to either taking that path.
How good is the incoming recruiting class?
This is the subject that eases the pain of Friday’s loss and the departure of three starters — Hood, Parker and graduating senior guard Tyler Thornton.
The Blue Devils have perhaps the top recruiting class in the country with four five-star players — 6-10 center Jahlil Okafor, 6-6 small forward Justise Winslow, 6-1 point guard Trey Jones and 6-4 shooting guard Grayson Allen.
Duke is also still in the running for 7-0 center Myles Turner, who visited Cameron for Duke’s 93-81 win over North Carolina on March 8.
This group is athletic and skilled. Okafor is the top center in the class while Jones is the top point guard. That’s a good place to start. Like Kentucky has been under John Calipari, Duke’s recruiting class is strong enough to provide the Blue Devils hope for league and NCAA titles.
Where will next year’s leadership come from?
This is almost as important a subject as whether or not Hood and Parker will return. A lack of cohesion limited Duke’s ability to play up to its talent level this season and led to the truncated postseason.
In Okafor and Jones, it appears Duke’s most talented players will once again be playing for Duke for the first time.
But there will be a difference next season. Veterans like soon-to-be senior point guard Quinn Cook, junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon and junior forward Amile Jefferson have been important, productive players. That is important when leaders are established in a locker room.
All three were part of the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearance in 2013 and this season’s flameout. Cook also absorbed the Lehigh defeat in 2012.
The Blue Devils bounced back from the 2012 disappointment with a solid season because seniors Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry established standards. For Duke to recover from this early exit, Cook, Sulaimon and Jefferson will need to do the same.
Will the coaching staff return intact?
Duke’s assistant coaches, Steve Wojciechowski, Jeff Capel, Nate James and Jon Scheyer, are incredibly important to Krzyzewski. They all played for him know how to cultivate Duke’s winning culture.
Capel, a former head coach at Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma, is certainly ready for another head coaching job. Wojciechowski saw former assistant Chris Collins get his first shot as Northwestern’s head coach this season, so he has to be wondering when the time will be right for him.
Should Capel or Wojciechowski depart, Scheyer is ready to move up to a full assistant’s role from the special assistant job he currently has.
Is Duke, given its recent NCAA Tournament troubles, still a national title contender?
Major question here. Since winning the 2010 NCAA championship, Duke has gone 5-4 in NCAA Tournament play. Twice the Blue Devils have failed to win a tournament game.
With the class coming in and experienced players like Cook, Sulaimon and Jefferson returning, Duke has the talent to, as usual, win the ACC and contend for the NCAA title next season.
But the two early-round losses in the last three seasons are concerning. Krzyzewski must find a way to blend one-and-done talents like Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker and, next year, Okafor and Jones, into a team to be sound defensively and solid fundamentally.
As Hood said Friday, talent doesn’t win championships. How the coaching staff molds this talent into a team is crucial for 2014-15.
PROJECTED 2014-15 DUKE ROSTER
(Assumes departures of FR Jabari Parker and SO Rodney Hood to NBA Draft)
Name Pos Ht Cl
Quinn Cook G 6-2 Sr.
Rasheed Sulaimon G 6-4 Jr.
Amile Jefferson F 6-9 Jr.
Marshall Plumlee C 7-0 Jr.
Matt Jones G 6-4 So.
Semi Ojeleye F 6-7 So.
Nick Pagliuca G 6-3 So.
Jahlil Okafor C 6-10 Fr.
Tyus Jones G 6-1 Fr.
Justise Winslow F 6-6 Fr.
Grayson Allen G 6-4 Fr.