October means teams will soon begin practicing as they ready for the season's tipoff next month. So, which questions need answering? Today, we look at how Duke will replace its national title-winning core with another stellar group of freshmen.
Mike Krzyzewski's greatest coaching strength -- and when you've got five national titles and 1,018 wins in the bank, your list of S-ranked attributes is long -- is his capacity for change.
Think about it. How many coaches with any history of success look back on that success as an invulnerable justification for stubbornness? How many can make a not-entirely-unreasonable argument that they already know it all? Heck, how many average workaday folks have their system, their way, and blanch at the idea of adjustment? What if you won 1,000 basketball games? How quickly would you fall into that pattern? Instead, somehow, the winningest coach in college hoops history retains a voracious, subject-spanning curiosity, a hunger for new knowledge as rare as the success it has fueled.
Much was (rightfully) made of this in April, when Krzyzewski nabbed his fifth national title in a college basketball world vastly different from the one in which he won his first, one barely recognizable even by the standards of his fourth. In 2010, after all, Duke's championship came thanks to veteran talent and long-term individual development (see: Zoubek, Brian). Five years later, as John Calipari's NBA-pipeline ethos reached its zenith, it was Duke's crop of NBA-bound freshmen who most accurately fit Calipari's ill-fated rebrand of "one and done": "succeed and proceed."
Indeed, Krzyzewski's recent adaptation has seen him co-opt large swathes of the Kentucky blueprint. He has recruited NBA-minded freshmen and encouraged their short-term goals; he's sold tight ties with the NBA and its players; he's compressed a team's four-year development cycle into eight short months; and he's used last season's success, and the draft exodus that followed, to reload his roster anew. Sound like anyone you know?
Kentucky had the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in four of Calipari's first five seasons. In 2014 and 2015 that distinction belonged to Duke. This is not a coincidence.
The transformation is nearly complete. There remains but one final step, one last question.
Can Duke do it again?
It, in this case, need not be a national title. Kentucky followed its 2012-13 national title with a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris, after all. It is more general than that. The defining characteristic of Calipari's half-decade run has been his ability to lose a majority of his roster to the NBA and sacrifice almost nothing in the transition one year later. For Kentucky, that has usually meant a trip to the Final Four. That's fine. Point is, the formula doesn't work if the success appears unsustainable. It must be replicated, one way or another.
For the 2015-16 Blue Devils, the necessary ingredients appear to be in place. In the spring, you might recall, the Blue Devils waved farewell to center Jahlil Okafor, small forward Justise Winslow and point guard Tyus Jones -- all of whom were freshmen ranked in the top five at their positions in the recruiting class of 2014. Duke's 2015 class also happens to feature three elite prospects ranked in the top five at their respective positions: No. 1 small forward Brandon Ingram, No. 4 center Chase Jeter and No. 3 point guard Derryck Thornton. The year-over-year similarities become even more striking: In 2014, the fourth member of Duke's No. 1 class, oft-forgotten shooting guard Grayson Allen, ranked sixth at his position. In 2015, the fourth member of Duke's No. 1 class, shooting guard Luke Kennard, ranks sixth at his position. The Blue Devils haven't merely replicated the class of 2014. They've cloned it.
On paper, that is. Positional recruiting rankings are hardly the most precise predictors of immediate collegiate success. (Fun fact: Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and Kelly Oubre ranked ahead of Winslow at the small forward spot last season.) Besides, even if they were identical, few would argue that this Duke class is as inherently talented as the one that came before it. As good as Ingram is -- and he appears to be very good -- neither he nor his classmates arrive with the same immense expectations (or pre-existing friendships) of Okafor or Jones.
Meanwhile, senior point guard Quinn Cook, whose positional generosity and performative reliability set Duke's tone throughout 2014-15, has no obvious immediate replacement. Emotionally, that spirit might live on in the frontcourt, where Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee, the program's two returning seniors, might lose theoretical minutes to Jeter and Ingram. That dynamic makes Allen's sophomore season -- when he is expected to fully emerge from the Okafor-Jones-Winslow shadow and become Duke's lead guard -- especially fascinating. Can Allen go from spot reserve to a leadership in one summer?
These are not questions one historically asks of Duke. We're asking them now, though, because the man that has presided over that program's history is not only inclined to change but uniquely energized by it. In a few short years, he has transformed what could have become a staid legacy program into an amalgam of the modern game's most dominant force.
Duke has always been good, but it's never been good like this. Seeing Krzyzewski figure that out as he goes, again -- and seeing whether his players can get there, and how, and when -- will be one of the 2015-16 season's most fascinating stories. No matter how it ends.