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A Great Duke Basketball Season Over, What's Next?

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March 24, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Matt Jones (13) moves to the basket against Oregon Ducks forward Elgin Cook (23) during the first half of the semifinal game in the West regional of the NCAA Tournament at Honda Center.
March 24, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Matt Jones (13) moves to the basket against Oregon Ducks forward Elgin Cook (23) during the first half of the semifinal game in the West regional of the NCAA Tournament at Honda Center.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes it’s hard to let a season go.

The accumulated "what-ifs" and ‘might-have-beens’ can haunt a team and its fans for months, even years. Or sometimes a season ends so well that nobody wants to move forward – kind of like the way 2015 concluded for Duke with the national championship in Indianapolis.

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The 2016 season ended for the Blue Devils Thursday night in Anaheim.

And I think this season will be easy for Duke fans to get past. It’s not that the year ended so badly – 25 wins and a Sweet 16 appearance were remarkable accomplishments for the youngest and least experienced Blue Devil team in the K era. And injuries – especially the loss of Amile Jefferson in mid-December – limited what Mike Krzyzewski’s young team could accomplish.

In the end, Duke got beat – decisively – by a better Oregon team. That’s easier to accept than choking against an inferior opponent or letting a game get away late on one or two mistakes.

"They were the better team," Mike Krzyzewski said in the postgame interview. "That was pretty obvious tonight. They were an old, extremely well-coached team. Great athletes playing together and they knocked us back. They were always in control of the game."

Krzyzewski had nothing but kind words for his outmanned team.

"I’m proud of my team," he said. "My team had just a great, great year. With the injuries and youth and limited guys, for them in our league to win 25 games, and [reach the] Sweet Sixteen … just a terrific group. A terrific year, and I’m proud of them. Wish we could have played better, but Oregon didn’t let us play better."

Oh, there are still some "what ifs" to consider – there almost always are.

What if Tyus Jones and/or Justise Winslow had decided to return to Duke for a sophomore season? Certainly they made the right personal choice by turning pro last spring – both were first-round draft picks. Winslow has had a big impact in Miami. But Jones has struggled to earn playing time in his rookie season. Could have had benefited from another year at Duke? And how much would Duke have benefited from another year of Tyus Jones?

What if Jefferson had not gotten hurt? His presence would have filled a lot of the gaps that plagued this team – the lack of experience, the lack of another inside post presence (both defensively and on the boards). With Jefferson, it’s easy to think this team could have been significantly better.

Then again, does the team develop in the same path with Jefferson in the lineup? Do Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram emerge as such dynamic players with Jefferson to share some of the load? And what happens to Marshall Plumlee’s senior season?

Marshall Plumlee … before anybody moves on from the 2016 season, we should step back and appreciate what the fifth-year senior brought to the table in his final year. With Jefferson out and both freshman Chase Jeter and transfer Sean Obi unable to contribute at a high level, MP3 was forced to become the team’s sole post presence.

A year after he averaged 2.2 points and 2.4 rebounds in 9.6 minutes a game (all career highs), Plumlee upped that to almost nine points and nine rebounds in more than 30 minutes a game. He was a leader – the team’s most vocal leader with Jefferson out.

After the Oregon loss, Krzyzewski was asked about the end of Plumlee era – with Marshall’s graduation Duke will be without a Plumlee on the roster for the first time since before Miles’ arrival in the summer of 2008.

"I’d rather not talk about the Plumlees," Krzyzewski said. "I’d rather just talk about Marshall. No kid has improved more in one year in my 36 years here at Duke than Marshall. He was as important a player as we could have especially after Amile got hurt, the amount of minutes, the situations that he was put in. He had a fabulous year for us, and that's what I’ll remember.

"I’m proud of him. I love the kid. We’ve had a terrific year. Not a good one, we’ve had a terrific year, and he’s one of the main reasons for it. In the service, the best thing you could say, because I was in the service and a captain in the Army, is ‘well done’, and that’s what I would say to him, ‘Well done, son. Well done.’"

Krzyzewski could say the same to Brandon Ingram, who also played his last game at Duke Thursday night. The slender wing forward from Kinston joined the line of one-and-done players who have had such a huge role at Duke in the last few years.

Ingram’s one Duke season will stand alongside Luol Deng, Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones as one of the great one-year Duke careers. I’m not sure where he ranks on that list – certainly in terms of his contribution to the Blue Devil program, he’s ahead of one-and-doners Kyrie Irving and Corey Maggette.

Ingram gave Duke as much or more than could have been expected when he committed a year ago.

That brings us to Grayson Allen.

I’ve written before than Allen has turned in one of the great individual seasons in Duke history. His leap from 4.4 points a game as a freshman to 21.6 points as a sophomore is unprecedented in ACC history. He’s the ninth player in Duke history to lead the team in scoring and assists (and also led in steals). His 789 points last season are the seventh highest total in school history.

And he’s done it in a season in which he was spotlighted by the media – especially by ESPN – as a player to focus the hate of any non-Duke fans upon. Even before the first tripping incident, ESPN had run an article citing Allen as "the next hated Duke player." Then all-sports network turned the two regrettable (and immature) tripping incidents into a cause célèbre.

Maybe it’s appropriate that Allen’s season should end with another manufactured controversy – did Allen refuse to let the Oregon player who taunted him all night hug him in the postgame handshake line? What a monster!

I have no idea whether the atmosphere of artificially hyped Grayson Allen hate will have any impact on the kid’s decision whether to go pro this spring or to return to Duke for his junior year. But I know that Allen does have a tough decision to make.

And that leads us to the best sign that a season is in the past – the look ahead.

Or, as Coach K so eloquently puts it, "next play."

Duke has a lot to look forward to next year, but the exact shape of the 2016-17 Blue Devils won’t become clear for many months.

Allow me to summarize the issues I’ll be watching as we move forward:

1. Grayson Allen’s decision.

Conventional wisdom is that if Allen enters the draft, he’ll be a late first-round draft pick. That’s enough for many kids (i.e. Tyus Jones last year), but not enough for others (J.J. Redick, for example). And there are always a few kids who are determined to go no matter where they will be drafted (Josh McRoberts and Shavlik Randolph at Duke; Trevor Lacy last year at N.C. State).

Some kids are forced out by academic pressures – that’s certainly not the case with Allen, an academic All-American (not that ESPN has interrupted its hatefest long enough to dwell on that).

None of us know what Allen is thinking.

Certainly, this is one of the weakest draft classes in history – and that could drive his decision. On the other hand, he made the greatest single-season improvement in ACC history between his freshman and sophomore season. Is it ludicrous to think he could make another jump between his sophomore and junior seasons?

Allen won a ring as a freshman. His sophomore season ended short of the Final Four. How driven is he to go out a champion? Does he want his jersey in the rafters – something that would almost certainly happen if he stays four years?

Only Allen knows … and I’m not even sure HE knows for sure what he wants at this point.

I would be very surprised if he doesn’t take advantage of the new NCAA draft rules that allow a player to declare for the NBA Draft and work out for various pro teams without jeopardizing his collegiate eligibility. Unless Allen hires an agent, he has until May 25 to withdraw from the draft, if he wants to return to Duke.

That date is 10 days after the draft combine. Allen can also participate in one private workout with each of the 30 NBA teams.

Duke’s star could make a decision at any time between now and then that he’s either leaving or returning to school, but I wouldn’t expect a final determination until late May.

Until then, we’ll just have to wait.

How much will Allen’s decision impact Duke next season?

Well, he is – and will be – one of the best players in college basketball. Certainly, he would add a lot to the ’17 Blue Devils.

But his departure would not be a crippling blow. Coach K has Luke Kennard, Matt Jones and terrific freshman Frank Jackson available to play wing guard (plus freshman Jason Tatum is a natural wing forward who will also get perimeter minutes). That’s a pretty solid perimeter rotation … but Allen is a special player and his return would give Duke the deepest, most talented perimeter group in the nation.

2. Harry Giles rehabilitation.

Giles was the undisputed number one player in the prep Class of 2016 before he suffered a horrific knee injury in the summer before his sophomore year of high school. Giles tore both his ACL and MCL in his left knee and required major surgery to repair the damage. He missed an entire year of prep basketball while rehabbing.

Giles returned for his junior season and promptly regained his consensus No. 1 ranking. He had a strong summer of AAU ball and was again the player everybody raved about – early projections had him as the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft.

But last fall (Nov. 15), Giles suffered another knee injury. This one was to his right knee. It was not as severe as his earlier knee injury – this one was reported as a partially torn ACL (with no MCL damage). It has forced Giles to miss his senior prep season and will keep him out of this spring’s prep all-star games.

It’s fair to wonder whether Giles will be ready next fall when Duke begins preparing for a new season. He has tweeted recently that his rehab is going well and he has promised that he’ll be ready for next season.

Still, until we see Giles back in real game action, there will be doubts … or at least concerns.

His rehabilitation is very important to Duke’s 2017 hopes. A versatile 6-10 forward, Giles is a unique player who could answer many of the post concerns that plagued the Devils this past season.

3. Amile Jefferson’s request for an extra year.

This should be a formality. Jefferson meets the NCAA requirements for a hardship waiver to play a fifth season. Not too long ago, Nate James was granted a fifth season under similar circumstances (James played six games in 1998).

But it is not automatic. The NCAA does have to look at the case and make a determination. There is no reason to think Jefferson’s appeal will be denied.

And while the 6-10 forward has the option of graduating and starting his pro career (probably overseas) or of transferring and playing somewhere else, I’m told that neither of those options is attractive to Jefferson – that he’s anxious to return and have the kind of senior season he envisioned.

Jefferson is an important piece to next year’s puzzle. He’ll bring the experience, the interior defense and the rebounding that this past year’s team often lacked.

4. Off-season improvement.

We all saw the transformation of Grayson Allen in the off-season after his promising – but limited – freshman season. We saw Marshall Plumlee step up his game after his junior season.

How much can Luke Kennard, Derryck Thornton and Chase Jeter improve their games this off-season?

None is likely to match Allen’s meteoric improvement, but it wouldn’t take that much of a jump to transform Kennard from a dangerous, but erratic wing scorer into an all-star quality player. And Thornton, who should be finishing up his senior year of high school this month, showed flashes of excellence as a freshman, even though he struggled with freshman ups and downs. He has a chance to be a superior on-the-ball defender.

Jeter probably has the longest road to go, but he definitely has the skills, if he can add strength and a little confidence.

All three guys will be very important to Duke’s hopes next season … how far can they elevate their individual games in the next few months?

5. Roster changes

Duke is still recruiting five-star prep center Marques Bolden, although the Blue Devils have been a long-shot since the decision was made to try and bring Jefferson back next year.

That’s okay – a senior Jefferson is probably more valuable than a freshman Bolden (although his bulk would be nice to have).

I’m told that Bolden is the only possible addition at this point (and he’s unlikely). No fifth-year guys, no late foreign pickups (Jack White was it in that category). No sleeper freshmen.

Will there be a transfer out?

Anything is possible, but I was told that it’s unlikely that Duke loses a key player in that way.

Obviously, not everything will play out in public over the off-season. We can watch Allen’s pro decision and Jefferson’s appeal. We should even get reliable reports about Giles rehab, especially when he arrives on campus this summer.

We can also watch Coach K direct the national team in its bid to win a third straight Olympic Gold medal.

Some of the stuff will happen out of sight – for instance, the off-season efforts of Kennard, Thornton and Jeter.

Even when the team does begin formal preseason practice next fall, there will be plenty of issues to work out – no one can guess how the chemistry between so many talented players will evolve.

Lots of questions still to be answered about next season. But the outlook is very promising. And with the promise of 2017 looming so brightly, it is easy to let 2016 go.

THE REST OF THE ACC

Of course, Duke does not operate in a vacuum.

The Blue Devils are part of a powerful league that has other teams rising and falling.

Duke’s 14 ACC partners have their own off-season issues which will help determine the shape of the league that the Devils will be trying to win in 2017.

The first of those issues is the stampede to take advantage of the new NCAA draft rules. We’ve already seen Cat Barber and Abdul-Malik Abu of N.C. State, Malik Beasley of FSU and Jaron Blossomgame of Clemson put their names in the draft.

Barber and Beasley appear in for good … Abu and Blossomgame have said that they are keeping their options open.

Many more will follow – Dwayne Bacon of FSU and Demetrious Jackson of Notre Dame are expected to at least look at their NBA options. At least a half dozen more will follow.

Those decisions will have a huge impact on the ACC next year.

Take Notre Dame. The Irish lose Zack Auguste, but if he’s the only loss, the Irish have a chance to be competitive again next season. But subtract Jackson too and it’s hard to see Notre Dame as an NCAA Tournament team.

The two best teams in the league this past season – Virginia and North Carolina – will lose some talented seniors to graduation. But both have a roster filled with borderline NBA types who might give the pros a look, especially if their 2016 season ends up in Houston.

There is going to be a lot of roster uncertainty around the ACC until the end of May.

There will be other player losses.

N.C. State has already lost the Martin twins to transfer.

There will be others – what is going to happen at Pitt now that Jamie Dixon is gone? The Panthers were positioned to be one of the better ACC teams next year, but a coaching transition can be tough – James Artis and Michael Young might opt for the draft or could try and graduate and play elsewhere as grad students.

Georgia Tech will have to deal with the replacement of Brian Gregory, but there isn’t all that much talent left in Atlanta to go or stay – the new Jackets’ coach will be starting from scratch.

There will be additions too.

A year ago, Rick Pitino saved his season at Louisville by bringing in grad student transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. Grad transfers helped Georgia Tech reach the NIT Tournament. The leading scorer on a dismal Boston College team was a fifth-year grad transfer.

There are a ton of coaches out there mining "the secondary market" – the veteran players hoping to take advantage of the NCAA’s grad student loophole … usually kids from mid and lower majors who want a taste of the big-time.

Beyond the roster changes that are coming, there are two huge NCAA decisions looming that could have a major impact on the 2017 ACC picture.

One is at Louisville. Although the Cardinals self-imposed a one-year postseason ban – effective for 2016 – there is no guarantee that the NCAA will accept that penalty. The infractions committee could add another year – or multiple years – to the penalty.

The other is at North Carolina.

The Tar Heels have been living under an NCAA Notice of Allegations since last spring – charges of five Level One violations, including the dreaded "lack of institutional control". Despite spending millions on PR firms to devise strategies to minimize and explain away the issue, UNC has just been playing for time for this season’s talented team to make a title run.

There will be a reckoning – probably by late spring or early summer.

We’ll see if the Heels are in the race again next season.