Duke's Jayson Tatum, left, drives past South Carolina's Chris Silva, right, during the first half of their NCAA Tournament second-round game Sunday in Greenville, S.C. Duke's 88-81 loss was likely the last game for Tatum and several of his teammates who are expected to enter the NBA draft.
By Adam Rowe
Special to the Times
All good things must end.
This Duke basketball season was many different things at many different times, sometimes even in different states at the same time. Heading into the preseason, there was more promise and higher expectations than for any other season besides the 2014-15 team that won the national championship.
By the time the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament rolled around, the Blue Devils were skidding into the postseason, having lost three of four games. But after becoming the first team to win the ACC championship by winning four games in as many days, the Blue Devils had finally found a cohesive roster that would propel them into the NCAA Tournament and another run to the Final Four.
An easy first-round win over Troy in the NCAA Tournament seemed to reinforce that notion. Then the second half of the South Carolina game happened, and what looked on paper like the best collection of talent in the nation met an unceremonious end befitting some other Duke teams that had glaring roster holes and couldn’t overcome their shortcomings.
All in all, this season will be viewed as a disappointment for the Blue Devils, mostly due to the praise they received before the year started (ranked No. 1 by The Associated Press in the preseason). But the two-steps-forward-one-step-back nature of having to piece a team together with so many injuries proved too much to overcome. History looks kindly on Duke teams that win the ACC Championship and win two games over their rivals, so in a few years nobody will remember the preseason hype.
It may be comforting to look back on this season and ignore the injuries, but in retrospect they had a much bigger impact on the way the year unfolded than anyone will ever know. The plan coming in to the year was to start Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, Jayson Tatum, Amile Jefferson and Marques Bolden (as seen by the first preseason game lineup) but then Bolden and Tatum got hurt in practice and that grouping was scrapped.
Then, the emergence of Luke Kennard as one of the most dangerous scorers in college basketball and the second injury to Harry Giles caused the coaching staff to switch to a smaller lineup, with four guards until Tatum was healthy and him at the power forward spot and Jefferson at the center position. Once that rotation was set, it was a cruise ship heading in one direction that resulted in Giles (and Bolden, albeit to a lesser extent because he never truly got healthy) not really having a place on the court.
Couple all of that with head coach Mike Krzyzewski missing seven games in the middle of the season due to back surgery just as that rotation was starting to find its footing and you’ve got the makings of an unpredictable team like we saw in the final game of the year.
OFFSEASON ROSTER MOVES
Duke could lose nearly its entire rotation of players after the year due to graduation and early entry to the NBA draft, so keep an eye on draft declarations over the next few weeks. Word around the program is to expect a mass exodus.
Key dates to watch are April 23 (the deadline to declare for the NBA draft) and May 24 (the day to remove a player’s name from the draft).
RECRUITING DECISIONS UPCOMING
With many roster spots expected to be open along with coaching changes around the country, Duke could pick up interest in some undecided players as the April 12 signing period approaches. But for now, Duke’s main targets remain forward Kevin Knox, point guard Trevon Duval and center Mohamed Bamba — all five-star recruits. With so many players leaving, though, Duke may need to add more than just six recruits in the 2017 class.
Duval would replace Allen at point guard,allowing Frank Jackson to move to his more natural shooting guard spot. That will likely push incoming shooting guard Gary Trent over to small forward, while Knox is the guy they’ve targeted to replace Jayson Tatum at the stretch four position that Duke has showcased in recent years. Wendell Carter is the guy Duke wants at center to replace Amile Jefferson in the starting lineup, unless they’re able to land Bamba. Getting a true center like Bamba would give the coaches a lot of flexibility to move guys down a spot to their more natural positions (Carter is a natural 4 and Knox is a natural 3). So Bamba is one of the more important pieces left on the board besides Duval, as we saw this season how important point guards are.
Adam Rowe covers Duke basketball, football and recruiting for 247Sports.com. Check out more of his work at duke.247sports.com.