With the men's college basketball season ending last weekend, our men's basketball beat writers analyze a busy first week of the offseason with three questions.
Villanova wrapped up the most dominant run to a national championship in recent memory Monday night. How much of a chance would Duke have had to beat the Wildcats if Grayson Allen’s shot against Kansas in the Elite Eight at the end of regulation had gone in?
Ben Leonard: I’m sure most of you will disagree with me on this, but Duke would have beaten Villanova if Allen’s shot had rolled in. The two teams Villanova pummeled in its final tournament games, Kansas and Michigan, both struggle with defending the 3-ball, the Wildcats’ strength. The Jayhawks nearly allowed the most 3-point tries in the country this season, and the Wolverine defense was No. 110 in the country in 3-point attempts taken. A lot of 3-point tries generally means that there are a lot of open looks to be had—something that Villanova exploited.
But Duke’s zone defense developed into one of the best perimeter units in the country at the end of the season and would have limited the Wildcats from deep. There’s no question that it would still have been a close game, but the Blue Devils’ defense would help them come out on top.
Mitchell Gladstone: Ben, I am going to disagree with you on this one, like you said. As effective as Duke’s zone looked down the stretch, we saw what Kansas was able to do to the Blue Devils—especially with Malik Newman and then Svi Mykhailiuk’s shot to send that Elite Eight game to overtime. This Villanova team had seven guys who were all legitimate long-range threats, and I think they would have used their ball movement to find plenty of gaps to shoot over the zone.
There’s no question Duke could have won in a matchup with the Wildcats, and in fact, the Blue Devil offense might have been the most likely in the tournament to take out ‘Nova. But Jay Wright’s group is national champs for the second time in three years, and I believe they deserve it more than any other team.
Hank Tucker: Duke was certainly capable of beating any team in the nation this year, including Villanova. It might have been the only other team in the nation capable of winning if the Wildcats played and shot like they did Saturday night against the Jayhawks. But we’ve known this Blue Devil team was as talented as anybody all year, and it still never accomplished anything really meaningful.
Getting to San Antonio would have changed that narrative, hung a banner and made the season a success, but it feels unlikely that Duke’s run would have lasted any longer than that. Experience wins in March, and Villanova was a group of proven champions that knew how to win and peaked at the right time. Sure, it would have been a good hypothetical game, but I’ll still take the Wildcats as the winner.
What’s the outlook on next season for Duke as a potential contender again, and how much hinges on the decisions of Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval to stay or jump to the NBA?
BL: Duke is going to be a contender regardless of whether it gets Trent and/or Duval back. But how serious of a contender the Blue Devils will be hinges on if Trent comes back. All indications are that he is going to leave for the draft, but if he stays, he could provide a deep threat for a backcourt that could be thin. R.J. Barrett and Tre Jones are very good, but Duke needs one more true guard to emerge to be the national championship frontrunner.
The Blue Devils have a lot of size, but shouldn’t have to rely on Alex O’Connell or playing a three-big lineup constantly to win games. Don’t get me wrong: Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish are very good too, but Duke could use some traditional guards to mix in on a team laden with forwards. If Trent comes back, it would be hard to stop Duke. To me, it doesn’t really matter if Duval comes back. The Blue Devils have a capable—and potentially less turnover-prone—point guard in Jones.
MG: Well, let me address the critical questions first: Do I think both Duval and Trent should return to Durham? Yes. Do I think both will? No.
I have a hard time seeing where Duval would fit on next year’s team, especially if Tre Jones is a better shooter—sure, Duval and Jones could find a way to work like Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook did as a backcourt tandem in 2015, but it just seems unlikely. Trent, however, would be an awesome piece for Duke to have back because of his potential to develop even further on the defensive end.
He’s really honed in on his shot, and with Trent back, the Blue Devils could go back to being that dominant perimeter shooting team that many think of when they think of the classic Duke squads. But in the end, there’s no reason the Blue Devils won’t be able to contend for a sixth national title—I just think we’ll see the same questions come to the forefront again as Duke struggles to defend and jell together as a rotation with at least four first-year players.
HT: For as good as Duke’s recruiting class is next year, it doesn’t have a player quite like Gary Trent Jr., a generally reliable 3-point shooter and free throw shooter who knocked down numerous big shots this season. Like Ben and Mitchell, I’d assume Jones can replace Duval just fine, but Trent’s decision on whether to stay will make a big impact on how I look at next season.
Regardless, though, I think it would be absurd to put Duke anywhere near No. 1 in the preseason poll with likely four or five starters gone, no matter how good the recruiting class is. The Blue Devils won’t have a single senior in the rotation unless Antonio Vrankovic goes through a Marshall Plumlee-esque transformation to become an effective center in his final season, and that typically hasn’t been a very good formula for a national title hopeful.
The Blue Devils have already seen one departure that came as a surprise last week. How important was Jeff Capel’s decision to leave Duke’s staff and accept Pittsburgh’s head coaching job for the future of the Blue Devil program?
BL: From an X’s and O’s standpoint, Capel’s departure is completely irrelevant. But from a recruiting standpoint, Capel will be missed dearly. Remember, he got Blake Griffin to go to Oklahoma of all places and was integral in landing the elite recruiting classes in recent years in Durham. I don’t see this having a major impact in the short term—Coach K will be able to recruit just fine. But in the long term, it leaves the Blue Devils without a clear replacement for head coach Mike Krzyzewski upon retirement. Perhaps his departure also signals that he would not have been the right fit.
MG: I think it’s easier to make a bigger deal about Capel leaving from the outside, especially when we really have no idea as to the future of Coach K. Maybe Capel wasn’t the clear successor that many perceived him to be. Maybe Coach K has the intention of sticking with Duke for three, four, five more years. Maybe there’s something else we don’t know about that could play out in the next few months.
Regardless, the point is that the future is cloudier, but not much else changes. Jon Scheyer has reached a similar plane to Capel in terms of recruiting, and as long as Coach K is still at the helm, Duke isn’t going to have an issue bringing in the country’s best prospects.
HT: It’s really hard to read the tea leaves on what Capel’s departure means regarding the succession plan for Coach K’s retirement, if there even is a succession plan, and I won’t try to make a guess, but unlike Ben, I think it might have a big impact on X’s and O’s and the day-to-day adjustments the team has to make.
Capel wasn’t wildly successful during his nine years as a head coach, but he does have a lot of tournament experience and was exposed to different styles and environments that may have added a fresh viewpoint to the staff. For example, when Duke was struggling to defend the perimeter against Iona in the first round of the NCAA tournament a couple of weeks ago, Coach K said it was Capel’s idea to make a successful switch to a 3-2 zone. It also helped to have somebody with head coaching experience on call to fill in at a moment’s notice when Krzyzewski had to miss a game, and the Blue Devils won’t have that luxury anymore.
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Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor
A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks.
A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."