Every week, the Blue Zone will make a take on Duke sports—whether that take may be hot, cold or lukewarm. This week's take is in from Evan Kolin:
There is no doubt that this season’s Duke basketball squad is one of the most impressive of all-time from a pure talent perspective. Never before has a team fielded three players all likely to go in the top-five of the following year’s NBA draft. But having the most talented roster doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be remembered as one of college basketball’s greatest teams, or even stand on the podium of that season’s Final Four. Blue Devil fans should know that more than anybody.
Duke was able to assemble a top-two recruiting class each of the three seasons following its last national title in 2015. But that accumulation of talent led to a grand total of zero Final Four appearances and only one run past the Sweet Sixteen. Furthermore, none of those units were able to post a 30-win season, a mark head coach Mike Krzyzewski has reached 14 times before, most recently via a 35-4 campaign by the aforementioned 2015 national champs.
This year, the Blue Devils once again bring in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. But why should we expect things to end any differently than it has over the past few seasons, when Duke’s inexperience was easily exploited come March?
Many will point to the fact that this season’s incoming freshmen are nothing like anyone has ever seen before, the first team ever to bring in the nation’s top three recruits. And yes, the Blue Devils will likely be able to score at will this year. But that doesn’t fix the main issue Duke has faced during its recent “drought” of dominance: consistent defense.
Since the 2016 season, the Blue Devils have posted one of the nation’s top-six offenses each year. But Duke hasn’t been able to produce a top-six defense since 2010, which uncoincidentally was the year the program won its fourth national championship. That lack of a dominant defense has made the Blue Devils inconsistent throughout the regular season and vulnerable in the tournament.
If this year’s Duke squad wants to fulfill its dreams of being “the best college basketball team of all-time”—as R.J. Barrett so eloquently stated—it is going to need to play defense consistently at an elite level. Barrett and company did an extremely successful job of that in the Champions Classic against Kentucky, but then followed up that masterful performance with a lazy showing against Army.
The Black Knights were constantly able to take advantage of the Blue Devils’ lack of defensive ambition with open three after open three. In the end, the talent gap was just too large as Duke came out with the 22-point win. But if instead of Army on that court it was a middling ACC team, such as Virginia Tech or Syracuse, that game easily could have ended in defeat.
The difference between good teams and great teams is that the latter always brings their best out on the court, day in and day out. Former Blue Devil forward Shane Battier embodied that mindset throughout his illustrious four-year career in Durham, leading to a then-record 131 college wins and the 2001 national championship.
The problem is whether this batch of 18-year-olds has what it takes to do that continually throughout the entire season. I think they can.
Now I’m not saying this team will go undefeated by any means. No sane person can predict that. But the way I saw Duke bounce back from its sluggish play against Army gives me reason to believe this year’s squad could go down as one of the program’s all-time best teams.
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The Blue Devils knew they could defeat Eastern Michigan by double-digits whether their hearts were in or not. But they decided to absolutely tear apart the Eagles anyway, forcing turnover after turnover even when the game was well out of reach. Some may call that running up the score; I call it a sign of very good things to come.
If Duke can play with that kind of intensity every single matchup, this team can easily finish with closer to 40 wins than 30. And something tells me the Blue Devils are more than capable of doing that—Barrett and Zion Williamson play with a fire I’ve seen in few other teenagers, and Tre Jones has appeared to embrace the role of offensive playmaker and defensive stopper.
So I guess this means I better enjoy my first year here at Duke while it lasts. Because once the season ends and Barrett, Williamson and Cam Reddish have all left and gone their separate paths in the NBA, I may not be able to experience anything like it ever again.