#5 Duke by Ricky O'Donnell

Photo: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It takes approximately two fingers to count the number of college basketball programs capable of entering a new season as a top five team after losing three first-round draft picks to the NBA -- not to mention another star to graduation. The list is Duke and Kentucky and will not include any other schools until further notice.

Blue Devils fans might want to get used to this arrangement, because with the way Mike Krzyzewski is recruiting it's about to become the new normal in Durham. The names on the back of the jerseys are starting to change on an annual basis, but Duke proved last season talent triumphs over experience and continuity even in a do-or-die format like the NCAA Tournament.

The group that led Duke to the national championship last year was a special collection of talent. The four McDonald's All-Americans Krzyzewski brought in at the onset of the season ended the year scoring 60 of the team's 68 points in the title game against a great Wisconsin team. That's simply not the type of accomplishment that repeats itself. But even as Duke loses four starters, few would ague against the Blue Devils deserving another lofty preseason ranking.

Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones have become Brandon Ingram, Derryck Thornton, Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter. It would be unfair to expect Coach K's latest crop of five-star recruits to be as transcendent as their predecessors, but no sane person would demand that.

The bigger point is that Krzyzewski has expertly retooled overnight to give himself a shot at another deep run in March. He got Ingram -- the team's biggest talent and the No. 3 recruit in the class of 2015, per ESPN -- to choose Duke over UNC late in the process and coaxed Thornton to reclassify to become eligible this season once it became apparent Jones wasn't sticking around.

Coach K is putting on a clinic on the recruiting trail, and it isn't stopping now. By the time it's wrapped up, Duke's next class, the one arriving in 2016, could be one of the strongest recruiting hauls of this decade.

The impending arrival of NBA-ready talents like Jayson Tatum and (probably) Harry Giles might give the impression that this is a holdover year for Duke, but Krzyzewski's transition seasons are essentially everyone else's best-case scenarios. With Grayson Allen leading a strong group of veterans with two-way potential, Duke is going to be a contender this season once again.

The scary thing for the rest of college basketball is it feels like Duke's momentum is just getting started.

How Duke can go far this season: Recreate the same dynamic offense that's been powering the program for a decade

The safest bet in college basketball is that Duke will have one of the best offenses in the country. You'd have to go back to 2008 to find the last season Coach K's team didn't finish top 10 in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Duke has had a top five offense each of the last three years.

The common denominator every season? An attack that spreads the floor with shooters and boasts one superstar wing. Austin Rivers became Jabari Parker who became Justise Winslow who has now become Brandon Ingram. The first three players were one-and-done lottery picks in the NBA, and Ingram -- currently projected to be selected third overall in the 2016 draft by DraftExpress -- is next in the lineage.

Ingram models his game after Kevin Durant, and it's easy to see some rough similarities there. He loves to shoot from the outside and has about the same proportions as Durant at 6'9.5 with a 7'3 wingspan and an impossibly skinny frame. Ingram's game also has a long way to go at this stage, so nobody is making the comparison outright. But when Duke moves Ingram to the four -- as it did with Winslow during last season's tournament run -- the combination of shooting and spacing should terrify opposing teams.

If Ingram is Duke's best long-term prospect, Allen is likely to be the team's best player and primary option this season. Allen broke out in the Final Four last year, but it might surprise fans that didn't play attention all season that he actually averaged less than 10 minutes per game as a freshman. It's going to be a sizable jump to go from role player to go-to scorer, but Allen has the skillset to pull it off. He's a relentless attacker with shooting ability and enough size and athleticism to become a good on-ball defender.

With Matt Jones acting as Duke's 3-and-D wing and Allen and Ingram likely set to carry the scoring load, the focus will be on Thornton and the big man rotation to hold up its end of the bargain. Thornton is not the same incredible offensive player that Jones was, but he's a better athlete and superior defender. Marshall Plumlee has been drawing rave reviews this offseason, and Jefferson is a calming presence that has been a staple since Parker was in school.

With Luke Kennard providing shooting off the bench, Duke should have plenty of offensive options and enough versatility to mix and match lineups. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

How Duke can go home early: Will the Blue Devils defend?

If there was a reason Duke's championship run registered as a mild surprise, it's because for most of last season the team really only played one end of the court. When the NCAA Tournament started, Duke was No. 57 in defensive efficiency. By the time it was over, they had risen all the way to No. 12.

With Thornton, Allen and Jones, Duke should have a nice defensive backbone. That leaves two questions:

a) Can Ingram defend and rebound well enough to allow Duke to play him at the four?

b) Will the combination of Plumlee, Jefferson, Sean Obi and Jeter be enough to hold down the defense when Duke goes four-out?

These are big concerns. Duke saw what happens when you don't defend the paint in the NCAA Tournament against Mercer just two years ago. It's easy to envision a scenario where Duke's best offensive lineups struggle to defend and their best defensive lineups struggle to score. That's what made Winslow such a great player last year -- he could hold his own defending fours and it allowed Duke's offense to take off.

With that being said, Duke does have options. Obi is a 260-pound behemoth who put up quality numbers as a freshman at Rice. Jeter was a five-star recruit and has excellent athleticism. Plumlee and Jefferson have been around the block for a while now and know the system well.

Duke has the personnel to score in bunches, but it remains to be seen if those same lineups can get stops. When they figured it out last year, Coach K found a way to win the national title. Discount this year's group at your own peril.

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