The past, present and future of Duke basketball arrived at the same intersection when the Blue Devils hosted North Carolina on Feb. 18. Duke had rallied after losing three of six games during a stretch a month earlier, edging then-No. 2 Virginia on the road and delivering a 30-point beatdown to a Notre Dame team ranked No. 10. As the Tar Heels came into Cameron, Duke was setting itself up for something big both in the moment and going forward.
Duke had at least four high-profile recruits in the gym that night, including class of 2016 point guard Derryck Thornton. This was when Duke started urging Thornton to reclassify, a move that would make him eligible to play college ball in 2015-16. When the game tipped off, Thornton got a firsthand look at why Duke was likely in need of a point guard for next season.
North Carolina led by seven with under two minutes left when Tyus Jones drove to the lane to hit a tough layup. It was the start of a one-man scoring outburst by the freshman guard. Jones would score nine straight points to push the game to overtime, and Duke would eventually win for their sixth straight victory.
Duke would only lose one more time all season before making a run to become national champions. When it happened, the possibility of Jones returning for school essentially went out the window. With fellow freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow also departing for the NBA and Quinn Cook graduating, the Blue Devils now had to replace four starters.
It would be a tough task for any program, but it seems particularly difficult for a Duke team that only had eight scholarship players the year before and just two commits in the class of 2015. As recently as April 15, Thornton was reportedly leaning toward staying in the class of 2016. It would have left Duke without a natural point guard on the roster.
Somewhere along the way, Thornton changed his mind, reclassified and committed to Duke. Why go back to high school when you can potentially start for the national champs? With Thornton in the mix, Duke had the perfect replacement for its biggest hole. When Brandon Ingram decided to choose Duke over North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky on Monday night, it was the final bow on what's likely to be considered the best recruiting class in the country.
Ingram was the fastest riser among the class of 2015, going from a top-20 prospect to No. 3 (per ESPN) over the course of the year. He was great during the McDonald's All-American week, earned an invite to compete with USA Basketball and played well at the Nike Hoops Summit. He and Jaylen Brown were the two best uncommitted prospects left on the board and his presence gives Duke a 6'9 shooter Coach K can move around the lineup.
With Thornton and Ingram joining shooter Luke Kennard and center Chase Jeter, Duke has reloaded on the fly for a team that could potentially be a preseason top-five squad. Duke's newest class doesn't enter college as distinguished as the previous group of freshmen that just led the school to a national title, but the college basketball landscape doesn't look as difficult for this upcoming season, either.
With North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Iowa State considered the four best teams in the country at this point, Duke has to like its chances. The Blue Devils' class of 2015 isn't as talented as its class of 2014, but it doesn't need to be. If nothing else, Duke has given itself a chance to be in the title picture again.
For one, Duke will be deeper next season. After the dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke only had eight players last year. When the new season starts, the four blue chip freshmen will be joined by three-star center Antonio Vrankovic and Rice transfer Sean Obi. Obi checks in at 6'9, 270 pounds and averaged more than 11 points per game at Rice before sitting out last season as a transfer. Vrankovic is a big boy too, measuring at 6'10, 240 pounds. Add in a top-10 recruit in Jeter and the return of Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson, and Coach K should have some quality size with which to work.
That depth will enable more lineup flexibility. At this point, it seems like Duke will ride with the following starters:
PG: Derryck Thornton
SG: Grayson Allen
SF: Matt Jones
PF: Brandon Ingram
C: Chase Jeter
Jefferson and Kennard will be the first two guys off the bench, with Obi likely to get quality minutes, too.
It's Ingram at the four that makes this team interesting. He's the only player here with the potential to be a one-and-done and a top-five pick in the 2016 draft. Coach K loves going small -- you can point to his decision to move Winslow to the four last season as one of the keys to the team's title run. Ingram is much skinner than the battle tank that is Justise Winslow, but having an experienced senior like Jefferson and a big body in Obi on the bench gives Coach K fall back options if it doesn't work.
The biggest question will be if any of the big men are able to hold to their own as the center in a four-out lineup. Having quality perimeter defense should help, and Jones and Thornton are both considered plus defenders who can provide solid ball pressure. Jeter isn't the the next Okafor as tempting as his five-star status might make the comparison, but he's a great talent in his own right. Jeter is at least 50 pounds lighter than Okafor, and he's not nearly as polished or accomplished entering college. That's OK. Jeter has a nice face-up game and the length (7'3 wingspan) to be a shotblocker.
No one is saying Duke's newest recruiting class can live up to the impossibly high standards the last one set. Okafor, Jones and Winslow entered college with a certain cohesion because of a bond formed playing USA Basketball together for years. This group won't have that luxury. Even if Duke doesn't come out of the gate blowing the doors off people, there's enough talent here that it can eventually get it figured out.
Allen projects as the go-to scorer and potential breakout star. Ingram is the player with sky-high long-term potential and the likely one-and-done. Jones will play the 3-and-D role. In Thornton, Duke has another heady point guard who will defend better than Jones even if he isn't as dynamic offensively.
To steal a line, the pieces are in place. Betting heavy on one-and-done talent is supposed to leave a program at a disadvantage the following season, but Coach K found a way to reload instead of rebuild. As the next college season creeps closer, the Blue Devils are likely to be in the national title conversation yet again.
SB Nation presents: The best of the 2015 NCAA Tournament