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How the Duke Blue Devils Can Repeat as National Champions

Roughly 60 points. 23 rebounds and 12.5 assists per game.

That’s the production that Duke has lost from last year’s national championship squad. Such numbers can be alarming when considering how much the Blue Devils will need to replace if they’re going to be a serious Final Four contender again this coming season.

But before you count Mike Krzyzewski’s team out, keep two things in mind: The Devils won it all last year with three freshmen in the starting lineup, and they’ll be loaded with new talent again this year.

There’s truth to the saying that it’s more about the Jimmys and the Joes than the Xs and the Os. That expression may most often be used in football circles, but it applies even more on the hardwood. Sure, team chemistry and coaching factor in. Krzyzewski is one of the greatest to ever coach the game, and it’s not by coincidence he has five NCAA titles to his name. But you cannot consistently win at a high level without top-end talent.

Period.

Despite losing a freshman trio to the first round of the NBA Draft, that won’t be an issue for Duke. This year, the Devils return a handful of quality players and once again bring in one of the top signing classes in the country.

Former Findlay Prep standout Derryck Thornton will take over at point guard, and how quickly he adjusts to the college game will have an enormous impact on his team’s success. Thornton averaged 17 points per game last season at Findlay, but before he reclassified in the spring, he was part of the 2016 class.

Like all freshmen, Thornton will experience growing pains. He also has the potential to be a key player from Year 1. Thornton doesn’t need to be a superstar, and if he can be serviceable and show improvement throughout the season, he’ll get the job done.

On the wing, Krzyzewski will have a variety of options. One key to the Devils’ 2014-15 run was the leadership of Quinn Cook, so it would be no surpise if both Grayson Allen and Matt Jones start at the 2 and the 3 early on as Krzyzewski searches for someone who can fill those shoes.

Of all returning players, Allen is arguably the most important. As a freshman, the shooting guard saw limited action throughout the regular season before coming off the bench and fueling Duke’s comeback in the national championship game. A sophomore leap by the Jacksonville, Florida, product would provide a significant boost for a group in need of a leader.

Two rookies will also be competing for minutes on the wing, At shooting guard, Luke Kennard can make immediate contributions as a scorer after averaging 38.4 points per game on his way to Parade National Player of the Year honors as a senior in high school. In-state small forward Brandon Ingram, whom the Blue Devils landed over rival North Carolina in April, is the headliner of the 2015 recruiting class and could start at the 3 right away.

Returning starter Amile Jefferson will be back at power forward. To this point in his career, Jefferson’s role has mostly included hard-nosed defense and rebounding. That could continue through his senior year.

A pair of new faces will be seeing time down low, as well. Neither true freshman Chase Jeter nor former Rice big man Sean Obi will have the same type of season All-American Jahlil Okafor had a year ago, but both are capable post players who can produce.

The bottom line is, Duke isn’t suddenly going to wither into a middle-of-the-pack ACC squad. This group will be right back in the NCAA tournament again next March. The biggest question is how high the ceiling could be.

Two primary factors will determine whether or not Duke is a serious threat to repeat. The first is whether or not someone can step up and be the same type of leader Cook was as a senior. Secondly, any freshmen in the rotation will need to be at the top of their games come postseason play.

Allen is only a sophomore, but he played in big moments last season. As one of only four returning scholarship players, he’s the No. 1 candidate to stay composed under pressure and knock down the big shot when the Blue Devils need it most.

As for the freshmen, Thornton and Ingram will undoubtedly be relied on heavily, while Jeter and Kennard could end up seeing the floor just as often. It’s not the end of the world if the rookies struggle early; the first month of the season is mostly an opportunity for coaches to get a better idea of the team’s strengths and weaknesses. What’s most important is that mistakes become fewer as the year progresses.

With so much turnover on the roster, it’s impossible to tell just how far a team like this can go. In terms of ability, the potential is there for another late-season run. If the pieces don’t fall into place, it’s realistic that Duke takes a step back.

As Coach K’s group proved last year, a young team is still a team that could be playing the best basketball at season’s end. And if the 2015-16 edition of the Devils can find the right new faces to fill all the holes, this Duke team could do just that.

Same story, different chapter.

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