This year's Duke team is going to be loaded. The Blue Devils are at the top of nearly every preseason top 25, be it ESPN's, Sports Illustrated's or SB Nation's. Duke not only has the country's No. 1 recruiting class with two top-five recruits and two other McDonald's All-Americans, but also returns a veteran core headlined by Grayson Allen, possibly the best returning player in college basketball.
In the one-and-done era, it's nearly impossible to accumulate such a collection of talent. I say nearly impossible because one team should stand out in everyone's minds as the most talented college team in recent memory. It wasn't too long ago that John Calipari's "platoon system" and Kentucky's stacked 2014-15 team seemed primed to march to a 40-0 record, before losing to Wisconsin in an all-time classic Final Four showdown.
This year's Duke team might not have quite as much NBA talent as that Kentucky squad, but what's frightening is they actually have the college talent to compare, and possibly even favorably. Each roster has its own unique combination of strengths and weaknesses, but when evaluated side by side, it becomes clear how scary good this Duke team could be.
For the purposes of this post, I will leave out Kentucky's Alex Poythress since he tore his ACL eight games into the season. Also, I will be evaluating the Kentucky players as they were in 2014-15, not factoring in what we know about them now as NBA players.
|SR Matt Jones||SO Andrew Harrison|
|JR Grayson Allen||SO Aaron Harrison|
|FR Frank Jackson||FR Tyler Ulis|
One interesting quirk about this year's Duke team is that they lack a traditional point guard. Allen, Jackson and Jones could all be classified as combo guards, with Allen and Jones particularly as more traditional shooting guards. Jones stands out as the worst of the group. He's a solid veteran but he's not even a fringe NBA talent while the other five guards all are. However, Allen also stands out as the best college player in the group. Ulis ended up being a star as a sophomore, but freshman Ulis does not compare to what Allen should be this year as an upperclassman who was already one of college basketball's best players last year.
Frank Jackson will probably take more time adjusting to the college game than Ulis did, but he's also a better fit on a team filled with talent than either of the Harrison twins. Kentucky's biggest downfall in many ways was that the Harrison twins played over more talented freshmen and dominated the ball when they were in the game. Jackson's ability to shoot the ball will allow him to contribute for Duke even if he hasn't learned how to attack and create for others at the NCAA level.
Duke could face a very similar pitfall to Kentucky if Coach K chooses to play Jones over Jackson. Calipari yielded to the veteran Harrison twins despite their inferior talent, and hopefully K won't do too much of the same with overplaying Jones on such a stacked team.
Nonetheless, the overall edge goes to Duke here mostly because of just how good Allen is poised to be.
|SO Luke Kennard||FR Devin Booker|
|FR Jayson Tatum||FR Trey Lyles|
Kennard and Booker both play the role of sharpshooter for their respective teams. Freshman Booker was a better player than Kennard was last season, but now entering his sophomore year Kennard could play a very similar role to what Booker did on the Kentucky team. Both are elite shooters with some actual ability to create their own shot as well, and Kennard will need to accept his role as more of a spot-up guy due to the talent surrounding him much like Booker did at Kentucky.
Lyles was forced to play out of position as a small forward at Kentucky, and though Tatum is more of a traditional wing he still might be better off playing the four in college. Much like Lyles, though, he will play a lot of small forward due to the sheer amount of true big men each team possesses. Both Lyles and Tatum came into college as top-10 recruits, but Tatum's top-five pedigree and more perimeter-suited game give him a slight edge over Lyles here.
There's not much to separate these two wing groups. Tatum and Lyles are both smooth scorers, while Kennard and Booker are two of the purest shooters out there. I'll give the slightest of edges to Duke due to having a little more experience and having the most hyped college talent of the four guys in Tatum.
|SR Amile Jefferson||JR Willie Cauley-Stein|
|SO Chase Jeter||SO Marcus Lee|
|FR Harry Giles||FR Karl-Anthony Towns|
|FR Marques Bolden|
Though Duke may have a touch more depth and experience, it's hard for anyone to compare to Kentucky's 2014-2015 front line of Towns and Cauley-Stein. Starting two top-10 pick 7-footers just doesn't happen very often, particularly not when one of them is a freshman who might've been the best player in the entire country. There's almost no chance Duke's bunch ends up being as good as Kentucky's frontcourt, even Marcus Lee was another overwhelmingly athletic 7-footer.
That being said, Duke has one of the more talented frontcourts imaginable. The centerpiece is No. 1 overall recruit Harry Giles. He's recovering from two torn ACL's, so there are some real questions around his future, but when healthy he's got the quickness and skill to play the four, and the bouncy interior athleticism to protect the rim and beat up smaller opponents as a five.
Next to Giles returns Amile Jefferson, recovering from his own injury that forced him to redshirt last season. Jefferson isn't the type of NBA talent the rest of these guys are, but he's an elite college big at this point in his career with fantastic defensive and rebounding instincts. Chase Jeter disappointed a bit as a freshman, but the former top-15 recruit is a piece most teams would be thrilled about as their primary big guy. Topping it all off is the simply massive Marques Bolden, who has the soft touch and skill to be projected as a lottery pick in some places. It's unclear how Coach K will find time for all of these guys up front, but that falls into the category of a good problem for now.
The edge goes to Kentucky mostly because of how exceptional Karl-Anthony Towns was (and is), but Duke's frontcourt has the chance to be as good as any non-Towns/Stein frontcourt of the past 10 years or so.
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It's hard to expect Duke to have anything close to the magical season Kentucky did. Their highly touted freshmen might not be as ready to play, and finding the right chemistry and system to balance such a talented team will probably remind Coach K a bit of Team USA. Injuries are always a potential hazard, as well. Additionally, playing in the tougher ACC probably prevents any chance of this Duke team running the table like Kentucky did through the SEC.
All that being said, when you compare the talent side by side it is tough not to get excited about watching Duke's team this year. Whether their performance will compare to Kentucky's remains to be seen, but there's reason to expect they could be similarly dominant. History might even look upon them more fondly than Kentucky, if they can secure the hardware Kentucky came oh so close to.