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Even with Zion Williamson, it hardly guarantees Duke next year’s national title


It’s rare you can say that one of the most high-profile recruits in the history of high school basketball pulls off a “shocking” commitment, but that’s exactly what we got Saturday, when Zion Williamson announced he’d go to Duke next season. In a world where every top high school kid’s recruitment is analyzed and over-analyzed, Zion’s somehow flew under the radar. Virtually everyone assumed that he’d pick Clemson, with a lot of late buzz surrounding Kentucky, South Carolina and North Carolina. Virtually no one had Duke even in the mix (considering they already had two elite wing players committed for this class). Only there Zion was on Saturday night, pulling out a Duke hat on national TV.

So Williamson is now officially a Blue Devil, and everyone has spent the last 36 hours discussing what’s “next.” In many corners (mostly in Kentucky) the conversation has focused on how Coach K has officially passed John Calipari as college basketball’s new “one and done” savant. Nationally, the narrative is equally as interesting, where it seems like just about everyone is ready to throw up their hands, say “Why even bother playing next season” and hand Duke the 2018-2019 national championship.

But while the arrival of America’s top three recruits overall (R.J. Barrett, Williamson and Cam Reddish) and four of the Top 10 (including point guard Tre Jones into the mix) certainly makes Duke the most compelling team entering 2018-2019, in at least one writer’s opinion (this guy’s right here) it hardly guarantees Duke a national championship. Frankly, I’m not even totally sure they should be ranked No. 1 in the country to start next season.

It might sound crazy, but let’s start with the idea that the Blue Devils are the overwhelming, unquestioned favorite to win the national championship. In terms of where Vegas will peg them, that’s probably the case. Duke is already a public favorite in Vegas (like most blue-bloods are) and when you add in so much high-profile talent (and the media attention that will come with it) it seems like a no-doubter that they will be a very public favorite to win the title. But there’s a big difference between what the bettors think and what reality is. And that’s where things get interesting.

Simply looking at the roster Duke will likely run out on opening night (ironically against Kentucky) there will be plenty of questions. Starting with this year’s roster, it feels certain that at least three of the Blue Devils’ highly-touted freshmen (Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter and Trevon Duval) will be gone after this year. Grayson Allen will graduate too, leaving four open spots in the starting lineup, and it shouldn’t shock anyone if Duke’s fifth starter, guard Gary Trent Jr. goes pro as well. Trent isn’t projected nearly as high as his other freshmen teammates, but Trent has to realistically look at next year’s recruiting class and wonder if he’d be better off leaving this year, with the very realistic possibility that if he comes back his shots and minutes will go down with so many star freshmen in the mix. It’s not all that different than what happened last year in Durham with point guard Frank Jackson. A fringe first rounder, Jackson took his chance in the pros, rather than returning to Duke and having to compete with Duval for minutes in this year’s starting lineup.

So in all likelihood Duke will lose its starting five, and even if you assume no one else leaves (which isn’t a certainty. Remember, Marques Bolden nearly transferred after last season), what are you left with? You’re basically left with a lineup where it’s almost certain that four freshmen will start, with one upperclassmen (either Bolden or sophomore-to-be Javin DeLaurier) taking the fifth spot in the lineup. Assuming there are no more major recruiting wins for Duke going forward (they’re only actively pursuing another player or two in this class) it means that the bench will once again be thin, with either Bolden or DeLaurier and current freshman Alex O’Connell as the only key players outside the starting lineup.

So when you breakdown the 2018-2019 Blue Devils, what you get is – again – a team with four highly-touted freshmen and one upperclassman in the starting lineup. Well kids, what does that sound like? Umm, actually it sounds a lot like this year’s team, a club which is really talented, but hardly unbeatable. The current Blue Devils might sport the best starting five in college basketball, but with losses to Boston College and NC State they aren’t invincible either. At this point we’re not even certain they’ll get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Let alone win a title.

And in looking ahead to next year, discussing the Blue Devils as a club with “four freshmen and an upperclassman in the starting lineup” only tells part of the story. What it doesn’t get into is how all those pieces will fit together, something that feels like it should be discussed a bit more at this point. Because while Barrett, Williamson and Reddish are the top three players in this class, they are all more or less the same player. They’re three ball-dominant wings who essentially have to have the offense run through them to be successful. And while figuring out a way to keep them all happy is a “problem” any coach in college basketball would like to have, it is a problem none the less.

Therefore, while everyone wants to compare next year’s Duke team to this current one, or even the one which won the title back in 2015 (when they had three freshmen in the starting lineup), you know who they actually remind me of? Last year’s Duke team.

That’s right, I’m old enough to remember all the way back to the archaic days of the fall of 2016 and winter of 2017, when I was told (non-stop, actually) that Duke had built an unbeatable team, thanks to a loaded recruiting class (Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Bolden, Frank Jackson) that was ready to join forces with a couple seasoned vets (Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard). There was just one problem: Once that team got on the court, everyone quickly realized that the Blue Devils basically had three guys (Tatum, Kennard and Allen) who were… wait for it… three ball-dominant wings who essentially have to have the offense run through them to be successful. While all the talent looked great on paper, once the team took the court, there were issues with floor-spacing and ball-movement from Day 1, which resulted in a wildly disappointing season which ended with a second round loss in the NCAA Tournament.

And while the naysayers would say “Well Duke didn’t have a true point guard last year” I’ve got to ask: Will things really be all that much different next year? Having Tre Jones will help, but he’ll still be a freshman, and he’ll be tasked with keeping those three wing players happy. Even with more of a traditional point guard, it feels like Duke could be facing a lot of the same problems they did last season. The puzzle pieces won’t fit nearly as well next year as they do now.

So when you think about it like that, I just don’t see where the “Duke is unbeatable” sentiment comes in, especially when you consider that there will be no shortage of suitors to challenge them. Outside of one or two players Kentucky could return most of this year’s roster, and the Wildcats will also add in three Top 25 recruits. Kansas will have a bunch of returnees, three high-end transfers and three Top 30 prospects on their way. You know that Michigan State, North Carolina and others will reload like they always do.

Therefore, while it feels like everyone has turned the 2018-2019 season into “Duke vs. the World,” I’m not so sure.

The Blue Devils will be compelling.

But they’ll be far from a lock to win the national championship.

Aaron Torres is covering basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or e-mail at [email protected]. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era,One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

19 responses to “Even with Zion Williamson, it hardly guarantees Duke next year’s national title”

  1. johnwall

    Thanks Aaron, i needed that

  2. Uncle Julio

    The more one-and-dones have taken over, the more it has been the teams with experienced veteran leadership that have won the championships. Cal’s just taking a little while to let the world see no one including coach k can do what he can with a team full of freshmen while he wins a championship with an experienced team next year. Call me crazy but I think this recruiting shift will end up destroying duke

    1. syrin23

      This is even more true for coach K. he has not shown he can take young talent and make them significantly better over the course of a season. They certainly aren’t as prepared for the NBA as UK’s players are.

    2. bbnZach

      Are you kidding me? He’s overrated as is Zion, Reddish is easily the best player Dook has next year. I have watched plenty Montverde games this year, and concluded Keldon Johnson would manhandle him. Barrett is soft.

  3. jahanc2uky

    Aaron, Do you think RJ Barrett is going to be better than Melo/the Brow next year?

    1. TonyMontana

      Hell no.

  4. WaterVerve14

    Agree with Uncle Julio. Cal can do things many can’t. Even this year…yes Duke is showy. But their adjusted KenPom defense is ATROCIOUS. I’d much rather have 80% of this team return with the hot shooters we have coming in then just have NBA all stars coming in. I think we are all being fooled…Cal knows the base was hating the 1 and done stuff…so I think he is shifting to get more of the top 15-30 recruits and have them for a few years. This year is certainly a tough one but their ceiling is still high. And we should get into these guys!!!…many of them will be back!

  5. BTownUKFan

    Looking at the NCAA champions since 2010 I’d say #1 recruiting class gets you a lot of press but nothing is guaranteed. Injuries, poor match-ups, kids don’t develop, coaches don’t get the freshman working together all play into the mix. Half the people were ready to give duke this year’s title in September. There are 5 or 10 teams that can out-score them on a given night. Duke had #1 class last year and this year…iIf they don’t win this year and they don’t win next year then is Coach alphabet soup considered a failure at one and done?

  6. wildcat2012

    Dude… can we not just let it be without having to write an article and post that same damn pic of Zion putting on the hat everyday?

    1. Ashleehutch

      Agreed!

  7. syrin23

    I don’t think this Duke team makes the FF unless Barrett is so incredibly awesome he can carry them their on his own. Zion will not be the player as a freshman everyone thinks he will be.

    1. FACTS

      I agree mostly with you syrin23

  8. BigBlue4EverUK

    Make this the last article abt Zion, we got our own team to worry abt …. Thanks in advance

    1. Kat4Life

      Agreed !!

  9. Luether

    Anybody but Dook…

  10. KYJelly

    Cals 2009-10 team and our 38-1 team were both shoe-ins to win it all. Duke may very well win it all next year, but the point is that NO ONE is a shoe-in in college basketball

  11. Kat4Life

    Enough with the preoccupation with Duke. Move along here, nothing to see.

  12. dballrb

    Spin it anyway it can be spent..It hurts Kentucky and it hurts them alot..Mic drop…

  13. dballrb

    Had we had outside shooting,Meeks left that year, the wall,Boogie team would of won the natty.Willie being out cost us the natty,To many players cost us a natty,Higgins cost us a natty,,Im a glass runith-over kind a person but damn..We should have 3 since 2009,but I’ll take 1 every 8-9 years over 14 years. Herro y’all..he’s going to be a beast from deep,baker coming in,shooting from deep will be strong next year,just come on back boys and we’ll get that Natty and once again be the end of the rainbow for College bball…