By AL FEATHERSTON
Duke's prospects for the 2012-13 basketball season were pretty well settled in a 48 hour period last week, when Mason Plumlee decided he was returning to school for his senior season and Shabazz Muhammad announced that he was going to play his one year of college basketball at UCLA and not Duke.
I know that the Blue Devils are still chasing a couple of recruits. And while success or failure in the pursuit of Tony Parker and Amile Jefferson could have a majorÂ impact on the long-term prospects of Coach Mike Krzyzewski's program, neither is the kind of player that would significantly alter the outlook for the 2013 Devils.
Plumlee's choice did - his return assures that Duke will have a contending team next season. Parker is a solid talent, but there's no way he has anywhere near the impact as a freshman that Plumlee will have as a senior. And while Jefferson appears to be the kind of inside/outside forward that should blossom in Coach K's system, he's physically unprepared to dominate at the college level (think freshman Ryan Kelly or maybe Clemson's Milt Jennings -- two similar sized players who were ranked about where Jefferson was coming out of high school.
On the other hand, Muhammad is the kind ofÂ transcendent talent (like Kyrie Irving or Austin Rivers) capable of making a good team great as a freshman. If he had followed Plumlee's announcement by picking Duke, the Devils would have immediately become one of the handful of favorites for the 2013 national title.
Instead, Duke is going to be underrated going into the season.
That's as much a function of the way the Blue Devils ended the season as anything else. Preseason rankings are always inordinately based on the previous March (and recruiting classes) and not on a rational evaluation of a team's potential. A team that goes on a hot postseason run - and returns the bulk of its roster the next year - is always going to be rated very highly the next year. And a team that stumbles late is going to be undervalued, even if that stumble was uncharacteristic of that team's season-long performance.
Duke is going to be undervalued because its postseason meltdown is going to overshadow its season-long success. Remember that going into Duke's regular season finale with North Carolina, the Blue Devils were 26-4, tied for the ACC lead at 13-2, No. 2 in the RPI and ranked No. 4 in both major polls (ahead of UNC).
Does that four-month demonstration of excellence count for less than a four-game late-season slump?
Duke's recruiting class is also being undervalued. Officially, Duke has just one recruit and doesn't show up in ESPN's top 20 classes. But that's wrong because in reality Duke has three recruits. Rasheed Sulaimon will be joined next year by redshirts Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee. Both are McDonald's All-America-type players -- Plumlee actually WAS a Big Mac A-A; Murphy would have been if he hadn't skipped his final high school season to arrive at Duke a year early.
Duke's three-man recruiting class is in reality a top 5 class nationally and (especially considering that Plumlee and Murphy have had a year of practice with the Duke team) rivals N.C. State's three McDonald's All-Americans as the best class in the ACC.
But those factors seem to be hidden to most prognosticators.
ESPN's Andy Katz just published an early preseason poll - based on what we know as of the end of last week. He picked North Carolina 11th â¦ and Duke 15th.
That - to be polite - is &%$# ridiculous.
I had an immediate flashback to 2010, when North Carolina entered the season ranked higher than Duke in almost every poll. Now, questions about the '09-'10 Blue Devils were fair â¦ but picking UNC in the top 10 that year was a joke. The Tar Heels had lost four starters off the 2009 national championship team - their four most productive players. They had a promising freshman forward who passed up a chance at being in the draft lottery and a very highly rated recruiting class coming in (higher, in fact, than this year's class).
Does that sound like a top 10 team to you?
I'm nothing saying that the 2012-13 Tar Heels will be as bad as the unranked 2010 UNC team that failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and finished below .500 in the ACC. But this is also a team that lost its four most productive players. There's not a single player returning who has averaged double figures in the ACC. Yes, James McAdoo (if his father can leave out that pretentious middle name, then I will too) has a lot of potential, but so did Ed Davis in '10. And before anybody pencils in Brice Johnson as an impact player (as Katz did) remember John Henson's freshman struggles - and Henson was a heck of a lot higher rated than Johnson. Dexter Strickland came in that year with very comparable credentials to Marcus Paige.
No, I won't take any bets about Duke's prospects next season, but - barring any major unexpected developments in the coming months - I'd be willing to risk serious money that Duke will be a better team than UNC in 2012-13.
I had to write something about Duke's program the day after Mason Plumlee announced that he was coming back to Duke. While looking at the team's prospects for next season, I was staggered by the similarities with the situation Krzyzewski faced headed into the 2009-10 season.
Think back to the summer before that season.
Duke was coming off a very good season -- 30-7, second in the ACC, No. 6 in the final AP poll - that ended badly with an embarrassing loss to Villanova in the NCAA Tournament. Krzyzewski was returning four rising seniors, two juniors and two little-used sophomores off that team. He was adding three freshmen - two McDonald's All-Americans and a highly regarded prospect who missed the McDonald's team only because he skipped his senior year to come to Duke early.
But Krzyzewski had also lost his best player early to the NBA draft - first-team All-ACC wing Gerald Henderson. Late in the spring, the Duke coach learned that rising sophomore guard Elliot Williams, who had energized the team when he moved into the starting lineup late in his freshman season, was leaving school to be closer to his ailing mother. All that was on top of the graduation loss of veterans Greg Paulus, Marty Pocius and David McClure.
If that wasn't enough, Duke fans were moaning about their coach's recruiting misses - from John Wall to Kenny Boynton to Eric Murphy.
Of course, we know now that the 2010 Blue Devils won 35 games, claimed the ACC championship, then stormed to the national title.
Now look at the situation today (without Parker or Jefferson):
Duke is coming off a very good season - 27-7, second in the ACC, No. 8 in the final AP poll - that ended badly with an embarrassing loss to Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament. Krzyzewski is returning four rising seniors, two juniors and two little-used sophomores. He is adding three freshmen (two of them redshirts) - two McDonald's All-Americans and a highly regarded prospect who only missed the McDonald's team because he skipped his senior year of high school to come to Duke early.
Coach K once again lost his best player early to the NBA draft - first-team All-ACC wing Austin Rivers. That was on top of the graduation loss of senior big man Miles Plumlee. So far, there is no equivalent to the summer departure of Elliot Williams, but there have been a string of disappointing recruiting results -- from Muhammad to Mitch McGary.
The similarities are eerie.
A cynic would argue that the returning players in 2009-10 were much better than what Krzyzewski has coming back this season. There is some truth in that, but maybe not quite as much as you remember. Think back to how those heroes on 2010 were perceived going into that magical season:
-- Kyle Singler was a widely acknowledged standout. He had won second-team All-ACC honors as a sophomore in 2009 (he was the No. 9 vote-getter on that team). He averaged 16.5 points and 7.7 rebounds. Although he shot just 44.1 percent from the field, he was 38.3 from 3-point range.
-- Jon Scheyer had never even been voted third-team All-ACC in his career. He averaged 14.9 points a game as a junior, but shot just 39.7 percent from the field (38.5 from 3-point range). He had moved to the point late in the 2009 season and done well, finishing the year with just under a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
-- Nolan Smith showed some signs of life late in the postseason after a disastrous sophomore season. He opened the year as Duke's starting point guard, but lost the job by mid-season and was sidelined for the last two weeks of the regular season by a concussion. He averaged 8.4 points and shot 44.1 percent (39.2 percent from 3-point range). He had almost as many turnovers (55) as assists (58).
-- Lance Thomas had been a part-time starter since his freshman season, but had struggled to find a role. He was a terrible rebounder for his size (just 3.6 rebounds in 18.6 minutes a game as a junior) and a very poor offensive player (5.3 points and less than half an assist a game). He showed flashes as a defender, but because he was forced to defend bigger players in the post, he was often physically overpowered.
-- Brian Zoubek's injury plagued career had never really gotten off the ground. As a junior, he averaged 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds (interesting note - he had exactly the same number of rebounds as Thomas in more than 200 less minutes) in 11.8 minutes a game.
-- Miles Plumlee saw almost no action as a freshman, averaging 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds as he played just 165 minutes all season.
Duke also had Olek Czyz returning, but as exciting as his game looked in the NCCU Summer League, he rarely got off the bench for the Devils. He would leave school six games into the 2010 season.
Now, how imposing does that look?
In hindsight, we know that Scheyer would emerge in his senior season as a great player - the runnerup for ACC player of the year honors. Singler would take another step, finishing as a first-team All-ACC player and the MVP of the Final Four. Smith would take the biggest step of all, blossoming as a great player - and a future All-American -- in his junior year. And Thomas and Zoubek would elevate their games in their final season to give Duke one of the most solid post combos in the nation.
Who is to say that the 2012-13 Blue Devils won't enjoy a similar emergence?
THE 2012-13 BLUE DEVILS
Okay, the comparison between 2010 and 2013 are interesting, but is hardly evidence that next year's Duke team will be as good as the national title team.
Instead, take the 2013 Blue Devils on their own terms. Here's what I see in my crystal ball:
-- Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly give Duke either the best or the second best pair of post players in the ACC (maybe Miami's Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji could challenge them).
The two seniors are accomplished players. Many critics may think that Plumlee has somehow been misused or undeveloped (I have a column about that coming next week), but whether he has maximized his talent or not, what he has accomplished is pretty formidable - third-team All-ACC as a junior when he averaged 11.1 points and 9.2 rebounds when he shot 57.2 percent from the floor. He is the No. 13 scorer, No. 2 rebounder and No. 2 shot blocker returning in the ACC next season.
Kelly averaged 11.8 points and 5.4 rebounds as a junior. He led Duke in 3-point shooting (40.8 percent) and is the No. 4 leading shot blocker returning in the ACC. He proved his value in Maui, when he was MVP of a field that included Thomas Robinson of Kansas. He also proved his value in his absence, when the Duke offense broke down when he was hurt late last season.
That's a pretty solid foundation. It would be nice if Krzyzewski could add Tony Parker as a wide-body change of pace, but there's already depth from veteran Josh Hairston and redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee. Don't discount the youngest Plumlee brother - he's long, he's got good hands and he runs the floor well. He might not have the physical gifts of his older brother, but he seems to be a more natural post performer.
The most interesting preseason battle will be at the point between returning starter Tyler Thornton and second-year playmaker Quinn Cook. Most Duke fans seem to prefer Cook. That's understandable in that he's a more natural point guard - in 330 less minutes than Thornton, he had just six less assists. His better than 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio is by far the best on the team.
On the other hand, Krzyzewski LOVES Thornton, calling him the best leader and the best communicator on the team. He's also a more dangerous 3-point shooter - his 3-point percentage of 35.1 is only so-so, but he hit clutch 3s in big wins over Kansas, at UNC and Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament.
On the wings, Duke has third-team All-ACC Seth Curry, the explosive, but enigmatic Andre Dawkins and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon - an athletically gifted 6-3 prep All-American from Houston. He might not be the offensive machine that Rivers was a year ago, but by all accounts, he has a more complete game.
That's important because Sulaimon could factor into a renewed emphasis on defense next season.
Late last season, Krzyzewski bristled at the suggestion that the 2012 Blue Devils were a bad defensive team. He scoffed at stats that showed that this was his worst defensive team in the last decade (Note: according to Ken Pomeroy, Duke finished No. 70 in defensive efficiency).
Still, this is the first time since Barry Jacobs began asking the ACC coaches to pick an ACC All-Defensive team that no Duke player made the first team. Nobody came close - Mason Plumlee got two votes; Rivers and Thornton one each. While Krzyzewski was right to point out that the team did get better defensively as the season went on, it was never at the level that Krzyzewski teams usually play at defensively.
Look for that to change. Sulaimon brings a physical aggressiveness on the perimeter that was missing last season. At least he's supposed to. A year ago, the Blue Devil coaches were hoping that physically gifted 6-7 wing Michael Gbinije could bring a defensive presence to the perimeter and it never happened.
Gbinije and 6-8 redshirt Alex Murphy represent the two wild cards going into next year. The buzz on Murphy, who passed up his senior year of high school to come to Duke last season, is that he has a Singler-like game and is good enough to make a major impact next season. At the same time, Duke players rave about Gbinije's athleticism and suggest he can be as good as he wants to be.
Both have a lot to prove on the floor, but there's no question that Duke's lineup would look a lot more imposing if the two young forwards could share one of the wing spots and give Krzyzewski the option to use less of his three-guard alignment.
Obviously, Duke has some questions to answer before next season. But so does almost every team in the country. Few teams return as solid an experienced core as the Blue Devils have coming back next season.
So don't play any attention to those negative national perceptions.
When Mason Plumlee elected to come back, it guaranteed that '13 won't be an unlucky number for Duke basketball.