DURHAM, N.C. – Duke’s “reigning national champions” opened their Cameron Indoor Stadium doors on Tuesday for media day a week into preseason basketball practices.
“Reigning” as opposed to defending was the word preferred by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“This is a different team,” he explained.
The game has changed drastically from the days when Coach K led Duke’s 1990-91 national championship team with the same cast of characters – notably Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Thomas Hill and Brian Davis – to capture the 1991-92 title.
Last year’s Blue Devils won the national title with three one-and-done freshmen that are already earning NBA paychecks: Jahlil Okafor was taken as the third pick of the first round by Philadelphia, Justise Winslow 10th by Miami and Tyus Jones 24th by Cleveland.
A fourth starter gone from the team was senior guard Quinn Cook, the team’s steadying influence.
Only two players with starting experience return after sharing the fifth spot last year. Amile Jefferson is a 6-foot-9, 225-pound senior and Matt Jones a 6-5, 200-pound junior. Both filled defensive roles, with Jefferson starting 26 games and Jones 14. Jefferson averaged 5.6 points and 5.3 rebounds and Jones 6.0 points and 2.3 rebounds.
They have another year of experience, but they again will be blending in with another talented freshmen class that features four 5-star prospects as rated by Rivals.com. They are spread out to fill holes at the post, perimeter and point guard.
Chase Jeter (6-10, 240) is a center from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman; Brandon Ingram (6-9, 190), small forward from Kinston, N.C.; Luke Kennard (6-5, 180), shooting guard from Franklin, Ohio; and Derryck Thornton (6-2, 175), point guard from Henderson (Nv.) Findley Prep.
But that’s not all.
Jefferson and Jones may have to score more this year compared to last year’s defensive roles, but the team’s returning offensive weapon is sophomore guard Grayson Allen (6-5, 205). He could turn out to be the team’s leading scorer.
Allen gained attention with his play in the Final Four against Michigan State in the semifinals and Wisconsin in the final. He only scored nine points against Michigan State, but they came in a spurt when the Spartans were taking advantage of foul trouble and closing the deficit. Against Wisconsin, Allen finished with 16 points that again came at timely moments.
But Coach K says Allen’s impact on the Blue Devils’ season was more than averaging 4.4 points a game and exploding upon the scene in the Final Four. He showed his ability in practice and in a late-season game against Wake Forest when he was the leading scorer with 27 points.
“He wasn’t just a kid who averaged 4 points a game and practiced,” Krzyzewski said. “He had a good ego throughout the year and he kept building momentum and confidence from his accomplishments.”
Allen is recovering from a hamstring pull last month, but Krzyzewski said a stronger version of his talent is back to full speed.
“Grayson is a guy who should get fouled a lot,” he said. “He can shoot so you’ve got to guard his shot. If you come up on him, he’s a bull. He’s 8 to 10 pounds stronger without losing his athleticism.”
Coach K stopped short of declaring a starting lineup. He will be working on combinations until Duke opens the season Nov. 13 against Siena. The Blue Devils face their first test in the third contest against Kentucky Nov. 17 in Chicago.
Jeter, Thornton and Kennard are cast in roles, but Krzyzewski said Ingram “can play all over.” He thinks this year’s team is longer and more athletic, but he says last year’ freshmen shared a rare maturity level.
“They had been on at least two USA teams,” said Coach K. “They got to know the feeling when they weren’t starting or weren’t the leading scorer. Those are things you don’t learn in high school when you’re always the best player. These guys have some of the same experience, but they’re younger in that regard. That’s not a knock on them, but it was a plus last year.”
It turned out to be a championship-worthy plus.