With the 2011-12 basketball season in the rearview mirror for all but four of the nation’s Division I programs, it’s never too soon to start talking about next year!
For those of us who like to speculate on how Duke’s roster will look when Countdown to Craziness kicks off in October, the events of the past week have provided significant fuel for the fire. The formal announcement Monday afternoon confirming that Austin Rivers will be second Blue Devil freshman in two years to hire an agent and enter the NBA Draft means that Duke is already down one major contributor heading into the summer. If Mason Plumlee is indeed “testing the NBA waters” as former Blue Devil Jay Williams first reported Thursday—or more importantly, if Plumlee decides that the NBA has nice “waters” that he finds more pleasing than the “waters” that Duke and the NCAA have to offer—the Blue Devils could have not one but two major holes to fill before the fall.
It would seem to be no secret that Duke is working hard to fill a void in the post through recruiting, and the Blue Devils do still seem to have a shot at landing 270-pound center Tony Parker from Lithonia, Ga. But if Duke misses out on Parker, there may not be another low-post high school senior to go after at this stage in the game.
Luckily, in what may turn out to be the most fortuitous news of the weekend for the Blue Devils, junior forward Alex Oriakhi is leaving Connecticut.
Oriakhi announced his departure Thursday morning, citing the Huskies’ pending ban from postseason play due to the program’s poor academic standing. NCAA rules allow players to transfer without sitting out a year—as Seth Curry was forced to do during Duke’s 2010 championship run—if the program is ineligible for the postseason for a period equal to or greater than the player’s remaining eligibility. Oriakhi just completed his third season at Connecticut, and thus, the Huskies’ one-year ban would be equal to his remaining year of eligibility.
Landing Oriakhi would be a major coup for the Blue Devil program in a year when shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon is Duke’s only signed recruit. Sulaimon won the McDonald’s All-American 3-Point Contest Monday evening, and will be another quality guard to bolster the Blue Devils’ rotation in Rivers’ absence next season.
But Oriakhi would take this team to another level.
With Mason Plumlee, Oriakhi could provide some needed muscle as the second half of a terrifyingly athletic duo in the paint for Duke. His presence would allow Ryan Kelly to spend more time on the perimeter, and the Blue Devils would immediately be the favorite to win the ACC with a starting lineup of Plumlee, Oriakhi and three veteran guards.
Without Plumlee, Duke could rely on Oriakhi on the interior night in and night out. He could start at center and allow Ryan Kelly to start at the valuable “stretch-four” position that the Blue Devils missed during the postseason this year. At the same time, he would dramatically relieve the pressure that would be thrust on Marshall Plumlee and Josh Hairston in a “worst-case scenario” for Duke’s big men, should the Blue Devils be forced to use a three-man rotation of Marshall, Hairston, and Kelly inside.
Oriakhi brings championship experience from Connecticut’s 2011 title team, a campaign in which he averaged 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore. That season is already better statistically than any of the four seasons Miles Plumlee produced in Durham, and only narrowly trails Mason’s production of 11.1 points and 9.2 rebounds from this year.
Granted, Oriakhi would only be in the program for one year. He would follow Irving and Rivers as players who came into the program for the first time in August and departed less than eight months later. Yes, it is rare for Krzyzewski to bring transfer players into the fold, preferring to groom players into the program and develop them over several years.
Yet Oriakhi is a special case. He can help immediately, and he fills a glaring void in Duke’s big man rotation that will grow even larger if Mason Plumlee immerses himself in the NBA waters. With Mason returning, Oriakhi is a great addition. Without Mason, Oriakhi becomes an essential addition. The Blue Devils will find out soon if they’ve hit or missed on Tony Parker. But Duke can’t afford to miss out on Alex Oriakhi.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.