Top to bottom, there is no team in the country more capable of winning the national championship than the Duke Blue Devils.
It’s something you’ve heard before.
Duke is no stranger to the preseason No. 1 ranking and is a near mainstay in the preseason top five. This year, the Blue Devils get that designation because they are the most talented team in the country, led by the best player in the country, and accompanied by the best freshmen class in the country.
And that’s before we even mention now-healthy double-double machine Amile Jefferson, 42 percent three-point shooter Matt Jones and returning sharpshooter Luke Kennard.
It all starts with national Player of the Year candidate Grayson Allen, the junior guard who played his way into the hearts of Duke fans in the 2015 Final Four and earned the vitriol of nearly everyone else through his antics last season.
He says the behavior that made him go viral is behind him, and now he’s a preseason All-American and the unquestioned leader of the No. 1 team in the country. From his freshman to sophomore years, his scoring average increased from 4.4 points to 21.6 points per game. That included a 55.4 effective field-goal percentage and a 41.7 percent mark from three.
With Allen in the backcourt, it’s easy to forget about senior Jones, a capable three-point shooter himself. One player who won’t be forgotten is Jayson Tatum — a 6’8 freshman who can play inside or out. In this year’s Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, assistant coach Jeff Capel lauded the likely one-and-done’s rebounding ability, post game, three-point shot, and defense. In other words, there’s no shortage of ways Tatum can beat you.
Tatum’s self-described best friend is Harry Giles, the top-rated recruit in the country. The big man put up gaudy numbers in high school, averaging 23.9 points and 12.5 rebounds per game two years ago. He has a solid handle for a big man and will clean up the glass plenty for second-chance points.
The downside? He’s recovering from two ACL tears, the second one forcing him to miss his senior year. Though he seems to be healthy again, there will likely be times throughout the year that force fans to hold their collective breath.
Alongside Giles, Jefferson is returning from an injury of his own. The redshirt senior appeared in 11 games last year before going down with a foot injury, but averaged a double-double before getting hurt. He will provide experience in a young frontcourt.
To go along with the most talented starting five in the country, Duke has a bench filled with players who would be starting for most other programs. Mike Krzyzewski has never been known for maximizing his teams’ depth, but he will have the luxury of doing so this year if he chooses.
In fact, Duke’s second five of Jackson, Luke Kennard, Chase Jeter, Javin DeLaurier, and Bolden could probably contend in the upper half of the ACC on its own.
Bringing Kennard off the bench is enough to demonstrate Krzyzewski’s embarrassment of riches — the sophomore topped 20 points on seven occasions last year and averaged nearly 12 points per game. Not to be outdone, Jackson, the other guard option off the bench, was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game. And he might be the fourth guard option.
If the Duke starting five does have a weakness, it is the relative uncertainty of its frontcourt. With Giles and Jefferson both with histories of injury, Bolden is a backup as the nation’s top-ranked freshman center. Jeter will also come off the bench up front and is looking to improve off a difficult freshman year.
Given the new landscape of college basketball, the ACC is going to always be the best or near the best conference in the country, and this year is no different with Duke and No. 6 North Carolina leading the way. Virginia is also in the top 10 of the AP Poll with Louisville and Syracuse also making the rankings.
But make no mistake: this year, the conference belongs to Duke and any challenge for the ACC crown will have to go through Durham.
What a luxury it is for Duke that it could have the best player in the country and not have to lean on him in order to succeed. Allen is not a true point guard, but will play that type of role, in that he will be the trusted hand in the backcourt to facilitate the offense.
Don’t be surprised if his scoring average dips a bit, through no fault of his own. Quite simply, the Blue Devils have so much talent around him that it might just happen naturally. Allen is still one of the most efficient scorers in the country.
He can create for himself or find Jones and let him catch fire. Or, he could get the ball to Tatum and have him take over. And then there are the guys inside and on the bench.
Allen turned down the opportunity to jump to the NBA after last season, and no one would have faulted him if he went. He could have been a first-round draft pick and already has a national championship under his belt. Instead, he decided to come back to Durham to head up the monster team that Krzyzewski has assembled.
Though he has caught the ire of rival fan bases, he seems determined to leave a lasting legacy on the storied Duke program. How this talented group is steered on the court appears to at least start in his hands.
It’s tough to imagine a scenario where Duke goes home early because the Blue Devils have so many weapons. But they do have vulnerabilities that could be exposed.
One of Duke’s greatest strengths is that literally everyone likely to be in its rotation can beat you offensively. Included in that rotation, however, are at least two probable one-and-done players (Tatum and Giles), two more top-20 freshmen (Bolden and Jackson), and two big-time recruits from last year (Jeter and Kennard). That means there’s bound to be one or two players unhappy.
If one of the five-star freshmen struggles early on and is relegated to more of a supporter role, it is possible for him to lose confidence or to clash with a teammate. It would be one fewer weapon at Krzyzewski’s disposal.
Then there are the injury concerns with Giles and Jefferson. The pro here is that if either goes down, there is a starting quality player waiting in the wings. The con is, again, one fewer prime time weapon.
On a team of superstars, it will be on the coaching staff to manage the egos, but some of that responsibility will lie on Allen and Jones, the two combo guards who will perform the point guard responsibilities. They are experienced and may have to quarterback more than just the offense.
Not that fans have any reason to think they can’t handle that.