Duke is back in the national title game in part because Coach K borrowed John Calipari's model for building programs through star freshmen
INDIANAPOLIS—The flurry of Duke dunks came with a speed that matched their fury. Tyus Jones’s no-look pass to Jahlil Okafor, who slammed the ball home with one hand, started the onslaught. Justise Winslow flushing home from the baseline continued it. That set up a knockout blow from Grayson Allen, the unlikeliest candidate, who thundered home a tomahawk dunk off a long rebound of his own miss. Allen’s celebratory scream earned him a cold look and stern warning from the official.
Duke’s cluster of dunks came during a three-minute span early in the second half that blew open its Final Four game against Michigan State. And it showcased the strut and swagger of a new era of Blue Devils Basketball. In No. 1 Duke’s 81-61 cakewalk over the No. 7 Spartans, these looked like Blue Devils of yesteryear, the dominant teams of Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner or Jay Williams and Shane Battier. They trapped on defense, rattled Michigan State with their physicality—how often does that happen?—and cruised to a victory coach Mike Krzyzewski deemed the best Duke had played in this NCAA tournament. That’s quite a compliment, considering the Blue Devils have won by an average of 17.6 points per game.
But there’s a distinct difference in this Duke team compared to its championships predecessors. And that was illuminated by one freshman delivering a half-court, no-look pass and his three classmates rattling home dunks that blew away the sold-out crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium and left Tom Izzo without any answers.
And as Duke prepares to play Wisconsin on Monday night for the national title, it can thank an unlikely inspiration for its new identity—Kentucky coach John Calipari. The Wildcats’ undefeated season ended on Saturday night at the hands of Wisconsin. But Duke is in position to win its fifth national title under Coach K because he has borrowed Calipari’s blueprint for building programs.
Four of Duke’s eight recruited scholarship players are freshmen. At least two of them, 6’11” center Okafor and 6’6” wing Winslow, are locks to be top-10 picks in June’s NBA draft. A third freshman, the 6’1” guard Jones, could end up in the draft as well. In four of the past five seasons, John Calipari’s Kentucky program has reached the Final Four, and it has become apparent that no foil has shaped Coach K’s program more than Coach Cal. Even if this seems to pain the Duke staff to admit. While Duke hasn’t been averse to one-year players over the years—Corey Maggette, Luol Deng and Kyrie Irving among them—the Blue Devils have never systemically relied on freshmen the way they have this season.
Consider Duke’s 2010 championship team—no player on the roster left college early for the NBA. Five years later, this Duke team could beat that 2010 team by 20. Gone are the players like Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler who spent four years in Durham and developed into late first-round picks. Those players are nice, but the game and culture has changed thanks to Kentucky’s turnstile. And everyone is scrambling to catch up, even if they are a bit hesitant to admit it. “We really haven't looked at anybody and said, ‘We have to do it like someone,’” Krzyzewski said. “It's just who you end up having the opportunity to recruit.”
They may not have looked at anyone, but they certainly look like someone. They are just as reliant on freshmen as Kentucky, which could end up with three one-and-done players season—Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns.
But Coach K denied any notion that the Blue Devils’ evolution has any copycat characteristics. The two seasons in which Duke has relied heavily on a single one-and-done freshman—Austin Rivers in 2012 and Jabari Parker in 2014—they finished as victims of second-round NCAA tournament upsets to No. 15 Lehigh and No. 14 Mercer. “I'd rather have a veteran team who is really good,” Krzyzewski said. “The talent, you have to go after the best players. I mean, we have an opportunity to get some of them, so that's what we should do.”
Krzyzewski has assembled a talented young team. Winslow continued his transcendent NCAA tournament, scoring 19 points on six shots. Okafor scored 18 points and looked at times like he was toying with Spartans, holding the ball over his head and directing traffic in the low post. Coach K’s freshmen didn’t really look at all like freshmen, which is a place Calipari has made his comfort zone and Krzyzewski is apparently finding his way to. “Since we've been on campus, coach never treated us like freshmen,” Winslow said. “I think that's why we've been playing so well lately.”
Some of Duke’s new look can be attributed to the evolution of college basketball in general. Agents are involved with talented players when they are underclassmen in high school, and a stigma has become attached to staying in school too long. The days of those old guard Coach K ideals—learning as you grow up—are becoming as antiquated as the phone book. “The culture has changed,” Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel said. “Guys don’t stay in school as long as they once did. There’s a rush for guys to feel like they have to leave. In some cases, guys may not feel like they want to, but they feel like they have to. That’s the difference.”
Krzyzewski maintained that that his reliance on freshmen has come more from opportunity than envy. Some of that can be tied to USA Basketball, as Krzyzewski can easily monitor if players like Okafor, Jones and Winslow can handle Duke’s culture and demands as they move through USA Basketball’s youth system. Even if he’s not coaching them. “There seem to be more guys like that,” Krzyzewski said of talented recruits ready to handle Duke. “It just worked out that way.”
The good news for Duke is that it will be playing for the national title on Monday night. The bad news is that it could really take a precipitous dip next season. If Jones leaves, the Blue Devils could be downright dismal. The easy analogy would be Kentucky’s 2013 team that lost at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. Duke brings in two solid recruits in 6’10” center Chase Jeter and 6’5” guard Luke Kennard, who aren’t good enough to be considered one-year players. The loss of Cook to graduation and the inevitable departure of Okafor and Winslow to the NBA leaves Duke with some nice players, but a roster that wouldn’t likely put it in contention in the ACC. And that’s the danger of the one-and-done game—it leads to a constant scramble and roster churn.
But that’s a conversation for the off-season. Right now, Duke has a dominant team that rekindles memories of the iconic Blue Devil teams of years past. And on Monday, we’ll find out if Duke’s new philosophy can deliver a familiar result.