Mike Krzyzewski knows what a talented basketball team looks like.
In 36 seasons as Duke’s head coach, the Hall of Famer has guided the program to top-10 finishes in the AP Top 25 on 26 occasions. That includes eight of his last nine squads. The 69-year-old has seamlessly evolved with — and capitalized on — the one-and-done era.
When Krzyzewski says this season’s group has a chance to be special, he shouldn’t be doubted. The claim provides even more reason to believe that the Blue Devils will cut down the nets in Phoenix come April.
Duke landing at No. 1 in the AP poll on Monday was more of a formality than a development. Since the end of last spring, the Devils have been a no-brainer pick as the nation’s top team entering the 2016-’17 season.
The roster is stacked with everything most coaches can only dream about: talent, experience, leadership. A touted freshman class complements a group of proven veterans on what is arguably the deepest team in America.
“There’s experience, and there’s experience in big-time situations,” Krzyzewski said last week at the ACC’s Operation Basketball event in Charlotte, N.C. “I’m fortunate that I have a few guys that have been in those big-time situations, and hopefully that will make it even better for the young guys who haven’t been there.”
Seniors Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones and junior Grayson Allen are the program’s three remaining players who played in the 2015 NCAA championship game against Wisconsin. All three were on the floor for over 20 minutes in that national title win, and all three will take on significant roles this season.
There’s much more to the team, though. In the offseason, Krzyzewski welcomed the consensus No. 1 recruiting class to campus, headlined by frontcourt blue-chips Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, heralded wing Jayson Tatum and versatile guard Frank Jackson. Sandwiched between the upperclassmen and the rookies is a sophomore trio led by promising scorer Luke Kennard.
Following a 2015-’16 campaign in which injuries left Duke with a depleted rotation, the Blue Devils are now enjoying the luxury of flexibility.
“We can do a lot of different things on the court,” Jefferson said. “I also think that our guys right now are getting used to playing with a bunch of different lineups. To me, I think we have at least eight guys, maybe even nine, who are starters.”
The main question is what the starting five will look like once the team begins to gel.
There will be an abundance of options in the backcourt. While there’s no prototypical point guard, Allen (who is the ACC’s top returning scorer after averaging 21.6 points per game as a sophomore) and Jackson are the most capable at running the offense in half-court sets. The do-it-all Jones will be involved after starting all 35 of the games in which he played last season, but Kennard, who scored 44 points in a recent team scrimmage, will unquestionably participate as well.
The forward spots are also loaded with bodies. Tatum drew rave reviews from his coaches and teammates before spraining his foot on Oct. 25. He’ll return to action possibly by the Nov. 11 opener against Marist and give the Devils a boost as a natural 3 who can play the 4 in smaller lineups.
Down low, Duke will be in position to constantly rotate fresh bodies. Jefferson and Bolden each have the opportunity to play heavy minutes while Giles recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery, and the Blue Devils will have a three-headed monster in the frontcourt once Giles returns in the coming weeks. Sophomore Chase Jeter will also provide depth.
This season will mark the first time Krzyzewski has ever filled all 13 available scholarships with recruited players. That’s led to a noticeable change in the way Duke is preparing for the regular season.
“We have two teams who are really good and who can battle each other in practice,” Jefferson stated. “I think it’s making our guys a lot better, and it’s also helping us for when we do play another opponent.”
The potential for a championship run is there. Should the players stay healthy, Krzyzewski’s main task is ensuring that everyone stays focused, working toward a common goal.
“We don’t do things because of pressure or expectations,” the head coach said. “We do things because we want to do them and not because anyone predicts or expects.”
That we-control-what-we-do mentality has been drilled into the older players, who, in turn, are now instilling it in the younger contributors.
“That’s the atmosphere that we’ve had and I would think that we’ll continue to have, where they make each other better,” Krzyzewski noted. “It’s a good situation.”
By the time March rolls around, it could turn out to be the best situation.