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Duke has another freshmen-led superteam. Will this one fall short again?

Duke’s previous superteams fell short. Will this one?

NCAA Basketball: Preseason-Duke at Ryerson University Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The template for the modern college basketball superteam was created by Kentucky in 2015, back when John Calipari was so committed to his platoon system that eventual No. 1 NBA draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns finished seventh on his own team in minutes per game. That Kentucky group deserves recognition as the most talented team of the era, but there was just one problem: they couldn’t finish the drill.

Kentucky, at 38-0, suffered its first loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four. The team that eventually cut down the nets that year? Duke. While everyone focused on Kentucky’s undefeated season, it turns out the Blue Devils were a superteam hiding in plain sight all along.

Duke began that year by signing four McDonald’s All-Americans. Together, they combined to score 60 of the team’s 68 points in the championship game victory over Wisconsin. Duke wasn’t just talented, its pieces fit together. Tyus Jones was one of the all-time great freshman point guards in college basketball history. Jahlil Okafor was truly dominant at the college level despite his NBA flameout. Justise Winslow’s two-way game and eventual move to power forward fixed Duke’s defense and opened up its offense. Grayson Allen proved to be the Final Four X-Factor.

Mike Krzyzewski has spent the years that have past since trying to copy the same formula. Duke has now officially surpassed Kentucky to become the unquestioned kings of the recruiting trail, yet his subsequent superteams have ultimately come up short in March.

Duke’s 2017 team was the clear No. 1 entering the season. The recruiting class again featured four more five-star recruits, this time headlined by consensus top-three recruits Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles. Allen and Luke Kennard returned as veteran scorers. A second title in three years wasn’t just the hope, it was the expectation.

It never happened. Injuries hit early, Giles never got healthy, Allen took a major step back from his breakout sophomore year and Duke was ultimately knocked out by South Carolina in the round of 32. I wrote that it was Coach K’s greatest disappointment ever, and I stand by it.

With the August addition of a reclassified Marvin Bagley III, Duke had another superteam the next season. Trevon Duval was a top-five recruit that was supposed to give Coach K the point guard he lacked a year earlier. Wendell Carter Jr. and Gary Trent were the other McDonald’s All-Americans. Allen returned again as a senior. Duke started five NBA players, yet Krzyzewski couldn’t get them to play effective man defense. A switch to zone was made. It worked for a while, at least until the Blue Devils ran into another ultra-talented team in the Elite Eight who could shoot over it. That would be Kansas, who ended Duke’s season in overtime behind 13 three-pointers.

That brings us to the present.

For the third straight year, you can call Duke a superteam

Just when it seemed like Coach K couldn’t top himself on the recruiting trail, he did it again. For the first time in the modern era (apologies to John Wooden), the sport’s top three recruits are all going to one school.

  • R.J. Barrett, a 6’7 wing from Canada, is one of the most accomplished prep players of his generation. The consensus No. 1 recruit cemented his status by leading his home country to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Cup last summer, highlighted by a win over Calipari’s USA team. He’s the front-runner to be the first pick in June’s NBA draft.
  • Zion Williamson is the 285-pound refrigerator with wings who became a social media sensation for his ridiculous dunking ability as a high schooler. He’s also a high-IQ player who can handle and pass like a guard in addition to being a terror on the glass.
  • Cameron Reddish looks like the prototypical NBA wing. At 6’8, Reddish can handle the ball and knock down shots off the catch or the pull-up. He might have the most complete skill set of Duke’s historic freshman trio.

There is a decent chance Barrett, Williamson and Reddish go 1-2-3 in some order in the 2019 NBA Draft. This doesn’t even count Tre Jones, the younger brother of Tyus, who enters the program as a McDonalds All-American and the No. 2 point guard recruit in the country.

With so much star power, you’d expect Duke to be the preseason No. 1 as they were the last two years. While the official polls aren’t out yet, that doesn’t appear like it’s going to happen. We had the Blue Devils at No. 4 in our early rankings. NBC also had them at No. 4 and CBS had them at No. 3.

Villanova won it all last year with a veteran roster that had six redshirt players and no one-and-dones. A year before that it was North Carolina who cut down the nets while starting five junior or seniors. No one is questioning Duke’s raw talent level, but it’s fair to wonder whether a team that is banking so heavily on freshmen once again can be the last team standing in the sport. Duke has some real questions this year that will ultimately determine how far it can go.

Can Duke defend?

It feels like it’s the same story with Duke every year: the offense is great, and the defense struggles. Here’s Duke’s offense/defense efficiency split for every year since 2014, via KenPom:

Duke offense vs. defense

Year Offense Defense
Year Offense Defense
2014 1 86
2015 3 11
2016 4 86
2017 6 47
2018 3 9

The 2014 team was the one led by Jabari Parker that was famously upset in the opening round by Mercer. The story of the 2015 team was how much the defense improved in March after starting the NCAA tournament at No. 57 in the efficiency rankings. Last season’s defense looked good on paper, but playing zone exclusively was always going to cause issues and they eventually arose deep in the tournament.

Will Duke resort back to the zone this year or will Coach K trust this team to play man defense? During its three-game preseason trip to Canada, Duke played mostly man defense with its starters and even showed off a 1-3-1 press. The three superstar freshmen are all long, rangy athletes who should be able to check multiple positions. Junior Javin DeLaurier is also a mobile big man who will be able to hedge screens and potentially blitz opposing ball handlers.

This Duke team has the type of athletes that could form the basis for a shutdown defense. Now it’s up to Krzyzewski teach them how to do it.

How’s the supporting cast?

The backbone of this team will be the four freshmen (including Jones) plus DeLaurier. Coach K typically plays a short rotation late in the season and that should be the case again. But Duke will still need complementary players to space the floor and defend, roles once filled by the likes of Quinn Cook, Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson.

What do you know about Jack White, Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker and Antonio Vrankovic? This looks like the Duke bench for now. Goldwire is a former three-star point guard recruit entering his sophomore year who looked solid during the Canada trip. Baker is a 6’7 freshman combo forward who could be a valuable shooter. White and Vrankovic are big men who feel like they’ve been around forever, but they might actually play this year.

You’ll notice we didn’t mention former McDonalds All-American Marques Bolden yet. He’s been buried by Coach K the last two years and only played 10 minutes in the final game of the Canada trip against McGill. He’s a burly post scorer who doesn’t exactly fit the uptempo style Duke is likely to play this year.

How will the three freshman stars play together?

This is the most interesting question. Reddish was out with a groin injury during Duke’s trip to Canada, so we haven’t seen all three stars on the court yet. Will the three play a selfless team game or will there be competing agendas as each looks to boost their NBA stock?

Williamson and Barrett looked great together in Canada. Both are high-IQ players and willing passers. Adding Reddish to that mix will be interesting. Reddish is a major talent, but he didn’t display the natural feel for the game at the high school level that the other two stars have. It’s also worth noting that all three freshmen like to have the ball in their hands. How effective each can be off the ball will be a big theme to watch this season.

There are no sure things in a sport decided by a single-elimination tournament, but there’s no doubt this is going to be the most interesting team in the country, and probably the most entertaining, too. With three top NBA picks, Duke is loaded once again. The entire sport will be watching to see how it ends.