The Duke men’s basketball team will start the season as the No. 1 team in the USA TODAY Sports coaches poll.
That preseason designation makes sense, coaches say, because of the strong veteran leadership on this Blue Devil team — most notably with junior Grayson Allen, senior Matt Jones and redshirt senior Amile Jefferson — coupled with arguably the nation’s best freshman class in the country. That class includes four players ranked in the top 12 of the Class of 2016, per Rivals.com, led by Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum. (Giles underwent knee surgery earlier this month and will likely miss the start of the regular season.)
“Duke has the perfect balance of one-and-done guys and college All-Americans that stay,” Villanova coach Jay Wright told USA TODAY Sports. “Even if those upperclassmen aren’t play (a lot), they’re invested in the program and they’re holding those freshmen to a higher standard. The freshmen can rely on their talent.
“But they always mix in those older guys. The freshmen are almost like hired assassins, and the older guys are smart enough to do all the dirty work.”
Said Northwestern coach Chris Collins, who was part of the Duke staff that won two national titles: “Matt Jones, Grayson and Amile are going to be such great rocks for that team to allow Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden and those guys to be freshmen — and not carry the weight of some of the other stuff. They’ll be able to go out and play. That’s been the formula for those really great Duke teams, and I expect this one to be one of those squads.”
Much like two years ago — when Allen was part of a four-player freshman class headlined by Jahlil Okafor — Duke hopes its roster makeup can again find the optimal mix of elite freshman talent and upperclassmen secure in their own shoes.
"There are some similarities to two years ago - but one of the big differences is the upper-class leadership has accomplishment," Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said. "Two years ago, we embarked on the start of that season, the upperclassmen were Quinn Cook and Amile actually was a junior, and that was really it as far as the leadership of our team. Those guys hadn't really done anything since they had been at Duke."
In fact, that was one of the biggest motivations for Cook, then a senior. He had not put up a banner at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He'd been part of embarrassing first-round NCAA tournament exits, nothing close to the good kind of history here.
But this year's veteran group has.
"They were the guys that were on the floor that turned the game around against Wisconsin in the national championship game," Capel said. "Those three guys were on the court when we were down nine. Their contribution to that game helped win a national championship. They have accomplishment. And all three of them have been in just about every role here in some way or another. They all went through periods where they didn't play much early as freshmen. They've been starters. They battled injuries. They should be able to help our freshmen and our new guys in every way and to have empathy for everything and to understand what they're going through.
"Because they are secure, they understand and aren't jealous of the freshmen's talent. They aren't jealous of their reputation. All they want to do is win, and I think when you have that, then you have the opportunity to create the type of chemistry that's needed to hopefully become a championship team."
Duke has been the preseason No. 1 in the USA TODAY Sport coaches poll five times previously (1991, 1998, 2001, 2005 and 2010). Only once of those five seasons, the Blue Devils ended up winning the national championship — in 1992, by beating Michigan’s Fab Five in the title game.