Editor’s note: It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage.
First up, the champions from Duke.
If college basketball trophies came with an expiration date, Duke’s would have read April 9, 2015.
Such is the world the Blue Devils live in now, where workers barely have time to sweep up the confetti before players move on to the next thing. Duke won its national championship on a Monday night; by Thursday, Jahlil Okafor announced he was headed to the NBA, with reports a day later that Justise Winslow would follow.
Neither is a surprise nor a bad decision. Mike Krzyzewski all but admitted back in October that Okafor wouldn’t last more than a year, and in all likelihood neither would Winslow, and really, the two need an extra year in college about as much as Krzyzewski needs another trophy.
Does it make things less palatable for the idealist fan? Sure. There’s hardly time to put together a parade, much less marinate in the glow of success before the roster turns over significantly.
But the reality is, if Duke -- or moreso, Krzyzewski -- isn’t willing to play the game the way it's currently constructed, the Blue Devils won't have to worry about plotting parades. Rare is the title-winning team that doesn’t include at least one player who will curtail his college career in favor of joining the NBA. Rent-a-players, as Bo Ryan described them, are the nature of today’s college beast.
“What a great decision," Krzyzewski said in the news release announcing Okafor’s decision. “This is a tremendous opportunity for Jahlil and he has earned it."
The Blue Devils earned their title, as well. The team that beat Wisconsin on April 6 was not the same team that beat Michigan State on Nov. 18 -- and that November team was pretty good. Duke reshaped its image in six months, winning a title as much on the back of its defense as its offense.
After taking a nine-point lead, Wisconsin scored just 15 points over the final 13 minutes of the game, shut down by a team whose defense once was so bad, its coach went to a zone. The only thing more stunning than Krzyzewski abandoning a man-to-man defense would be to see the Hall of Famer sporting a swath of gray hair on the sideline.
The defensive switch is just further proof that Krzyzewski is hardly some old codger stuck in the past. This is the first time that Duke likely will have multiple players leave early for the NBA, but also likely not the last, and so perhaps the old Blue Devils model has been broken.
But as Duke proved this year, the new world order can work just as well.
What the immediate future holds: Let’s start with the good news. Duke has more than enough talented returning players to build a team around. Underrated Matt Jones, Amile Jefferson (who really put the clamps on Frank Kaminsky in the title game) and junkyard dog Marshall Plumlee provide a cornerstone of experience.
Then there’s Grayson Allen, the next Duke player that everyone is sure to hate. He owned the championship game, scoring more points (16) against Wisconsin than he had in the Blue Devils’ previous five NCAA games combined. His choir boy looks cloak a player with crazy athletic skills and nerve to match.
Krzyzewski already has two top recruits coming to Durham in Chase Jeter and Luke Kennard. Jeter is a talented big man who can run the floor. He’s no Okafor, but with Jefferson, Plumlee and Rice transfer Sean Obi (a mad rebounder) to help, he doesn’t have to be.
Kennard, meanwhile, is another perimeter player and a five-star recruit to complement Jones and Allen.
Duke also is among the finalists for in-state top-20 forward Brandon Ingram, another versatile wing player. Ingram has promised he’ll make a decision by the end of this month.
Now the other side of the coin. Let’s operate under the presumption that Winslow is gone because after the March he had, it’s hard to imagine otherwise. If he stuns the world and returns to Duke, pop the champagne. It’s a coup and a very good perimeter team gets even better.
The bigger question: What will Tyus Jones do? With him, Duke has arguably the top returning point guard in the country, a floor leader who will have more than enough scoring options to choose from. Overshadowed by his Blue Devils freshman brethren, Jones proved just how valuable -- and good -- he is against Wisconsin, sinking two dagger 3-pointers, and more important, playing 37 minutes and committing just one turnover.
But if he doesn't return, Duke quite literally will be without a point guard.
It’s ironic, really. All season Jones was viewed as the third of the three-headed Duke freshman monster. Now he just might be the most critical.