INDIANAPOLIS—After the blue and white confetti fell and pieces of net began to do likewise Monday, Jahlil Okafor wrapped an arm around Duke teammates Justise Winslow and Quinn Cook for a commemorative selfie, with fellow freshman star Winslow manning the camera. The group smiled wide, but this would be one moment in which the Blue Devils came up short this night: Winslow couldn’t get everyone in the frame. So he passed the phone to Okafor, as the 6’11” goliath’s outstretched arm offered a better angle for the shot.
A moment later, the trio turned toward a mass of people hovering at the three-point arc and grinned again as more cameras clicked. If Okafor and Winslow’s presences on campus would be short-lived, the memory of defeating Wisconsin for the program’s fifth national title would not be.
As ever, the NCAA tournament championship game produced scenes captured for all time, just before one season moved into the next. Duke and Wisconsin have different rebuilds ahead, but they have one thing in common: They will be as much about personality as personnel.
Wisconsin’s uncommon camaraderie and ease in the tournament seemed a specific characteristic of this group, a good deal of whom won’t return. Duke, meanwhile, was driven by a senior guard who quickly established connections with a batch of precocious freshmen. That senior, Cook, and perhaps all of those first-year stars will be gone by summer. Replacing players is one thing. Replicating that chemistry is another.
“If we create the brotherhood we had this year,” Duke sophomore Matt Jones said, “we’ll be fine.”
It’s a massive “if.” Duke now deals with the aftermath of the one-and-done bargain, though it does have the blueprint in place. Okafor had been ticketed for the NBA draft before he arrived. Winslow’s potential should propel him into the draft as well. Tyus Jones may have erased many questions about his pro prospects with his Final Four Most Outstanding Player performance, but the program was destined for substantial churn no matter what he did in Indianapolis.
Freshman guard Grayson Allen, who broke out by scoring 16 points in the national title game, isn’t guaranteed to become a superstar this winter. But his Final Four performance served as a reminder that he was a McDonald’s All-American, too, and he can be a key player. “We all knew how good he was,” Okafor said.
Joining him will be 6’10” five-star center Chase Jeter and 6’5” five-star guard Luke Kennard. The Blue Devils also lured a different kind of recruit: 6’9”, 270-pound Sean Obi, a transfer who was on Conference USA’s All-Freshman team at Rice in 2013-14. Obi’s averages of 11.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game will be welcome, but how he and the rest of the team fit together isn’t clear. But Duke showed this season that it can build chemistry from scratch.
“We were not only dealing with youth, we were dealing with numbers, so practices couldn’t be long, we couldn’t get anybody hurt,” Duke assistant Nate James said. “So we really had to massage the year. Coach did an amazing job figuring out what to do and when and how much. What we do next year, it remains to be seen. Because we don’t know that group. We don’t know what they need to succeed.”
That group won’t have Cook, the ultimate senior tone-setter. But returnees will have championship results to back up their words. “We’ll follow the formula we did this year, and that’s working hard and working early,” junior center Marshall Plumlee said. “There were guys working all summer long. And from Day 1, when everyone showed up, no egos in the locker room. We didn’t have to coach attitudes this year. That’s a big key for us.”
Jones, despite standing only 6’2”, could be Duke’s biggest complication. Should he enter the NBA draft, Duke may be left scrambling. It might seem counterintuitive that a smallish point guard who averaged 11.5 points and 3.5 assists would consider himself prepared for the professional grind, but then consider this: Jones isn’t getting any taller. And should he return, he will be the focal point of every defensive scouting report, left without the benefit of Okafor or Winslow or Cook drawing the opposition’s attention. And there is no better lasting impression than the clutch 23-point performance against Wisconsin on Monday. By that logic, now might be as good a time as any to make the leap, which would leave Coach K with big questions.
Primarily: Does he even have a point guard in 2015-16? Duke will have frontcourt players and wings to spare, but without shopping at the graduate transfer market, it may fall to Kennard to run the show while playing out of position. Or perhaps it’s a by-committee approach. Neither option is ideal for a program that has long been driven by pure and reliable point guards, and it may be the bugaboo that prevents the Blue Devils from repeating.
“The ability to adapt is key in everything,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “I think I’ve adapted well.”
Down the hallway from Duke, more despondent scenes played out for Wisconsin, a glee club gone glum.
Instead of the usual news conference shenanigans, Josh Gasser stared red-eyed into the distance and Frank Kaminsky put his head in his left hand and stared at a box score. In the locker room, emergent junior Sam Dekker leaned forward from his locker stall, head in hands as well, and exhaled deeply. “Oh, man,” Dekker said, and no elaboration was necessary.
The Badgers were a fun-loving, highly skilled outfit almost certain they would win a title—“We thought we had the team to do it all,” Dekker said—and now they may lose nearly every key player. Should Dekker enter the NBA draft after a breakout NCAA tournament run, Wisconsin will lose five of its top seven scorers. Only two returning players, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, averaged double-digit minutes during the run to the national title game.
But the intangible losses may outpace the tangible ones. No one will match Kaminsky’s blend of production and goofiness. No one will offer the same veteran resolve that Gasser did. Rarely are teams so loose and so good at the same time, making faces at cameras in one minute and then playing at a high level before them in the next.
“We just have to be ourselves,” Hayes said. “As I’ve been saying, our sophomore class was kind of the one that got everybody open and whatnot, and we’re still here. The next group of guys that come in, they’ll just assimilate to what’s going on. And it’ll reach that same level again.”
Yes, the quick-witted Hayes, the player who took a ride to a Final Four news conference while positioned upside-down on a cart, will be back and can set another lighthearted tone. But the fun and games worked in 2014-15 because the other rotation players around pranksters like Hayes or Kaminsky were comfortable in their own skin. Can a team afford to joke around when the majority of its roster isn’t sure of itself on the floor just yet?
This season was a testament to the Wisconsin staff’s ability to develop talent over time. Next season will be a test of it.
The incoming freshmen include four-star shooting guard Brevin Pritzl, but history suggests any first-year player in Bo Ryan’s system will be an ancillary contributor at best; recall that even though five-star recruit Dekker started as a freshman, he averaged a modest 22.3 minutes and 9.6 points per game. Did returnees like Vitto Brown or Zak Showalter make enough advances to break through as reliable Big Ten-caliber performers? Did 6’9”, 230-pound freshman Ethan Happ glean enough from banging with Kaminsky and Dekker and Duje Dukan during a redshirt season to contribute in the fall? The word around Wisconsin is that Happ gave Kaminsky his share of fits, holding his own against the nation’s player of the year.
“This program is in great shape, in terms of how the younger guys have seen the path the older guys have taken,” Wisconsin assistant Greg Gard said. “You can still make yourself into a great player with a lot of hard work and commitment to it. These guys have set a great model for how it can be done and how you can improve.”
For both programs that played Monday, the improvements must arrive quickly, and the chemistry experiments must not blow up in their faces. Failures on either end will make it extremely difficult to approach this level next April, and the smart bet might be against either doing so.
As Kaminsky walked down a Lucas Oil Stadium tunnel headed to the bus, he stopped at a motorized cart ferrying Tyus Jones back to the locker room after the freshman’s postgame news conference. The two clasped hands and chatted, a pair of stars literally headed in opposite directions on this night, but both eager to find out what comes next.