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After 2015 Title, What Will Duke Do?

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Apr 6, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Amile Jefferson hoists the national championship trophy after defeating the Wisconsin Badgers the 2015 NCAA Men's Division I Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Apr 6, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Amile Jefferson hoists the national championship trophy after defeating the Wisconsin Badgers the 2015 NCAA Men's Division I Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

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It’s going to be tough. Duke rode tremendous play by Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee and Grayson Allen to the national title.

That was one senior, two juniors, one sophomore and four freshmen, and half of that team is now gone.

Duke returns Plumlee and Jefferson, now seniors, Jones, the junior, and Allen, a sophomore who had a major star turn in the 2014 title game.

Duke’s season took what seemed like a dangerous twist last year when Rasheed Sulaimon was kicked off of the team in mid-season.

Sulaimon had a rocky time at Duke. As a freshman he was very promising, but he came back for his sophomore year in very poor physical condition and fell behind.

Last year he was asked to take a role similar to what Matt Jones had, and to be a defender first.

And to come off the bench, and that apparently didn’t go over too well.

After the Notre Dame game, things came to a boil and Sulaimon was summoned to Mike Krzyzewski’s office for a meeting first thing the morning the team got back. After that meeting, he was no longer a member of the team.

That was on January 28th. Duke didn’t lose again until March 13th, when it again faced Notre Dame, this time in the ACC Tournament (the teams also played in Durham where Duke absolutely shellacked the Irish, 90-60. And it wasn’t that close).

Despite being down to eight players, Duke went on to the national title and hung the fifth banner in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Allen, who had rarely played prior to Sulaimon’s dismissal, had a huge impact on the title game. Coach K later said his famous scramble for the ball was the best play in Duke history.

Allen warranted special praise for his role and his willingness to subordinate himself to his team, but he wasn’t the only guy. Cook’s willingness to let Jones be the point guard – to mentor and support him – was also huge.

So too was Jones’s willingness to embrace his role as a versatile defender.

till, the one guy who we thought never got his fair share of praise for last year’s success was Jefferson.

His willingness to let Winslow take his starting spot was huge. Like Cook – who still started – he mentored his replacement.

In fact, everyone was willing to sacrifice, with the exception of Sulaimon. Now at Maryland, we’ll be interested to see how he finishes his last year of college basketball and what impact he has.

But as we say, half of that group is gone, and of the four remaining players, only Allen has the potential to be a serious offensive force.

Fortunately, Duke has an outstanding freshman class. Brandon Ingram, Luke Kennard, Chase Jeter and Derryck Thornton are all capable of contributing immediately, and Antonio Vrancovic has already demonstrated court awareness which is ahead of his physical maturation. And while Justin Robinson came as a preferred/recruited walk-on, his dad barely got a college scholarship before becoming a legend. He may become a factor later.

For now though it’s Ingram, Kennard, Jeter and Thornton, and all four are very good.

Ingram is terribly thin still despite having gained 20 pounds. His arms were pipe cleaners in high school. Now he’s a bit stronger but still will have trouble muscling in traffic.

That said, the kid is a 6-9 guard with incredibly long arms and great hops. His standing reach is 9-3, which means the rim is just nine inches away. In the preseason, he’s shown the capacity to shoot and to penetrate. He’s also shown that his arms make him a huge pain in the ass on defense. You have to go high just to get over him and he has a vertical that sees him near the top of the backboard. We reckon that makes his vertical about 38", give or take. There’s no power there yet in that minimalist frame, but when he gets stronger, he’s going to be impossible.

And against Livingstone in Duke’s second exhibition game, he drove the Blue Bears nuts on defense. He had five steals, several deflections and was in general disruptive. He could become a devastating defender.

Kennard is in some ways more prepared for college ball. He is a bit of a throwback, a 6-6 kid who can do a lot of different things. He reminds us of someone like Bill Bradley. He’s not that good, but he has the same sort of package – great shooter, great passer, solid rebounder, tremendous court awareness. We knew he was good but he’s better than we realized. He may or may not start, but he’s likely to get starter minutes anyway. He is not someone to leave alone because he’ll drain the open shot. He’s also capable of driving and dishing as well.

He could play at least three spots for Duke, and as we’ve seen before at Duke, highly versatile guys can make a thin team seem much deeper. Think Mike Dunleavy. As a freshman, he allowed Duke to use a six-man rotation to great effect.

Jeter is young and coltish, but he’s a promising talent. He reminds us vaguely, come to think of it, of a young and healthy Sam Bowie. His build and carriage are much like Bowie’s. He’s not as painfully thin as Ingram, who could almost give you a paper cut, but he’s not too much bigger. We did notice on a foul shot that his butt is a lot stronger than you’d think for a guy so skinny. As he fills out, he has the potential to be an excellent rebounder. He’s already agile, which you can’t teach, and reasonably aggressive. Jeter is listed at 240, but still appears thin. He could easily carry 20-30 more pounds.

Thornton had a brilliant debut against Florida Southern, but was less effective against Livingstone.

He’s supposed to be a high school senior but finished early, though that made him arrive late to Duke. Consequently, he’s not as far along as freshmen usually are, but he runs beautifully. We get the feeling that he has a gear we haven’t seen yet. He’s just smooth. He looks like a solid offensive performer, but like Ingram, his defensive potential is very high. He could turn out to be one of Duke’s better ballhounds.

Vrancovic is a big kid and a bit of a late bloomer. He made a lot of progress in high school though he still has a long ways to go. He won’t get much court time this year but in the Florida Southern game, he showed us a lot of intelligence as a player. He’s a few inches taller than Ingram, two taller than Jeter, and weighs 30 more than Jeter and 80 more than Ingram.

Vrancovic’s challenge is not to gain weight but rather to harden his body and particularly to strengthen his core and lower body. He can’t react fast enough to affect a play yet. When he can, he’ll be a factor. His high school coach praised his hands, his footwork, range and passing ability.

Like Vrancovic, Robinson’s father played in the NBA. Stojko Vrancovic didn’t have a huge career stateside, though he was in the early wave of Slavic big men who came from Europe and did well in the league.

David Robinson is a very different story.

He came to Navy as a 6-7 forward and blew up quickly to a 7-footer with superb athleticism. He was a college teammate, we think, of Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory, who transferred out of Navy.

Robinson’s career was Hall of Fame worthy and his intelligence is renowned too. His son is a preferred walk-on who could develop into a good player.

Duke also has Sean Obi who transferred to Duke from Rice. So far, Obi is a ways down the rotation, suggesting that it may be a while before he’s a factor. He made his bones at Rice as a rebounder, and you can always find time if you can find the ball.

Every team has wild cards and uncertainties. Even the best possible scenario – take Duke in 1992 – has to deal with egos, changing roles and expectations.

That’s not the case with this Duke team of course.

For Duke this season, there are a lot of things that have to be established, and one real key is whether or not the veterans can simultaneously expand their role and cement their authority as leaders.

Because Duke will lean on them a lot. As we said, only Allen has the potential to be a consistent offensive star, but all four have the potential to be great defenders, leaders, and more.

We’ve seen all four guys be tremendous defenders. Duke wouldn’t have won without Jones’s superb defense on various Wisconsin players including Sam Dekker, who had four inches on him. Jones and Jefferson’s willingness to accept different roles really made Duke’s season possible.

Allen is going to be asked to go from a supporting character who no one realized was as good as he is to a target, which is a big jump. Like Jefferson and Jones, he’s a willing defender and will work hard on that end of the floor. Duke will always get his best effort.

And what of Plumlee?

Marshall came to Duke in not one but two shadows, having followed Mason, who committed first, and Miles, who backed out of his Stanford commitment when Johnny Dawkins predecessor Trent Johnson bolted for LSU.

Both brothers were able to show off their rings around Marshall and now he has his own to flash back, which leads to a great trivia question: does any other family have multiple siblings with rings?

We can think of the McCrays maybe – Scooter and Rodney of Louisville – but not anyone else off the top.

Marshall has long suffered in comparison to his brothers, both of whom are far more athletic and who were ticketed for the NBA in high school.

As talented as Mason and Miles are, though, neither grew as much in college as Marshall has.

He came to Duke as an exuberant teenager, a guy who was a true extrovert, but he was someone who did not find a role quickly.

Part of that was due to injury of course – he fell behind and redshirted as a freshman – but part of it was because his court persona was like a big, overeager St. Bernard puppy, and he was so keyed up that you could see his teammates trying to remind him to calm down.

Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s his military commitment – Plumlee is the rare elite college basketball player who chose to join ROTC with all of its commitments – but Plumlee is not a kid anymore. He’s a full-grown man and he’s playing like it.

And while he lacks his brother’s athletic gifts, Plumlee has transformed himself into a reasonable facsimile of The Mountain from Game Of Thrones.

To dramatize it, he’s moved from this body to what we might call Plumlee 2.0.

In the exhibition games, as we’ve said, he’s really played well and done things we’ve never seen him do.

We’re not saying that he’s going to be an All-American or anything. His offense is still fairly limited for one thing. But he’s reliable, mature and strong, and he’s a solid defender. You could think of him as a more talented Brian Zoubek. And if you recall, Duke did okay when Zoubek was ready to start.

So while Duke has some strengths, there are a lot of questions too. Will the veterans and the freshmen mesh? Will depth be an issue? Can Plumlee maintain his new standard of play? Can Ingram’s thin frame make it through an ACC season? Will Duke develop an interior game to match its exceptional perimeter potential?

There are a lot of questions as always, but Duke still has an extraordinary advantage, and that of course is Coach K. He always takes his team apart and puts it back together in fascinating ways. So one year you see Allen becoming a real key late in the season. Another year you see Zoubek coming out of nowhere to become a rock for Duke, or Jon Scheyer becoming an unlikely point guard.

We’ve seen Duke walk it up and run it up. We’ve seen Duke muscle inside or jack up threes. The constant is Coach K, who has the ability to see how the pieces will best work. We don’t know yet how exactly they will, but he’ll find the best answers possible. Watching him do it is a big part of the fun.