Duke Basketball’s 2021-22 season will be its last with Coach K walking the sidelines. What will it take for K to cut down the nets for the sixth time?
Duke Basketball’s upcoming campaign will be the last under Mike Krzyzewski’s watchful eye. After over 40 years in Durham, the legendary head coach announced earlier this offseason his intention to retire after this coming season. Jon Scheyer has been handed the unenviable but honorable task of being the program’s next commander-in-chief, but that is still a whole year away.
As Coach K prepares to walk the sidelines for a final year, one question looms: What will it take for him to win it all one last time? He has already climbed the final NCAA Tournament ladder on five occasions but winning again in his final year would feel like a storybook ending for the coach of Cinderella’s antithesis.
Well, there are a lot of factors that go into winning a national championship. As the saying goes, “if it was easy, everyone would do it.” The sheer difficulty of winning six consecutive games on the sport’s biggest stage is what makes Coach K’s five banners to date so notable. College basketball’s single-elimination tournament oozes parity and has been the death of several great Duke teams.
Three times in Duke’s last eight NCAA Tournament appearances have they landed a Top 3 seed only to be upset prior to the Sweet 16. More often than not, though, you can count on the Blue Devils reaching the second weekend and threatening to win it all. Six years have passed since Duke’s last title and it feels like only a matter of time before another one.
Deciphering the ingredients for a championship roster is an arduous task, but let’s take a look into what some of the core components of Duke’s recipe might be.
Coherent roster integration
Coach K emerged as a leader of the “one-and-done” movement during the 2010s, landing several top-rated recruiting classes. This roster-building strategy differed from his prior teams but hardly yielded differences in results.
Put simply, there was a tradeoff: The one-and-done model sacrificed experience but made up for it with top-tier freshmen. Over the years, there has been a weak correlation between Duke’s experience rating and postseason success:
Duke will once again be young in 2021-22. The Blue Devils bring back more than some other years, yet are still ranked second-to-last among high-majors in Bart Torvik’s preseason “effective experience” rating. Wendell Moore, Joey Baker, and Theo John are their main upperclassmen but all appear likely to fill reserve roles.
As referenced above, this inexperience does not indicate much about Duke’s postseason hopes for 2021-22. Without a high percentage of returning minutes, though, the crux of this key is needing to develop chemistry quickly.
There is no way to quantify chemistry and thus it is impossible to analyze its importance. Talent overwhelms more often than not, but making that talent work as a unit is what wins six in a row.
It cannot be understated how important it is for Duke to have a full offseason. The Blue Devils did not have that last year and it resulted in their first missed NCAA Tournament since before their entire 2020-21 roster was born. Coach K and his staff will have time to work with this roster and it should pay dividends in getting the program back in the national title hunt.
It is impossible to project chemistry, but history is on Duke’s side with being able to produce successful seasons with young teams.
Defense, defense, defense.
“Defense wins championships” is oft-considered to be overused but perhaps holds merit when discussing the NCAA Tournament. With the modern era being so heavily dependent on the 3-point shot, there is more volatility when it comes to game-by-game offensive output than there is defensive. This is particularly evident in college as shooters are not as consistent as those in the professional ranks.
If you want to maximize your chances of winning six consecutive games, it follows logical reasoning to maximize your performance consistency. Focusing on becoming elite defensively raises a team’s floor. This hits home with Duke more than others. Given their immense talent every year, the Blue Devils will always have bucket-getters. Establishing an elite defense is a tad harder but is worth the effort.
Duke’s adjusted defensive rating is perhaps its most notable statistic as far as correlation to postseason results. Some of Duke’s best offensive teams have failed to be successful in the NCAA Tournament, including opening weekend exits in 2017 (6th AdjO), 2014 (1st AdjO), and 2012 (8th AdjO).
When the Blue Devils have had an elite defense (Top 30 AdjD) in recent years — six such occasions — they have averaged 3.83 NCAA Tournament wins.
Duke ranked 79th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, trailing far behind “elite” status. Considering only four core players are returning from that roster, though, we’d be better off projecting 2021-22 as if it were a clean slate.
Preseason statistical models this far out from opening day are questionable at best. As things stand, though, Bart Torvik projects the Blue Devils to hold the 28th-best adjusted defensive rating in the country this season.
Feature adequate floor-spacing
Quality 3-point shooting is a must in the modern era of basketball. It is almost impossible to compete for the national championship without being competent from beyond the arc and exhibiting solid floor-spacing.
Nine of the last 12 Final Four teams have ranked in the Top 50 nationally in 3P%, including the last three champions all being in the Top 11. It might not be hard-and-fast, but recent history states that being a title contender requires at least above-average 3-point shooting.
Perhaps the lone true anomaly to this rule was Duke’s 2019 team (327th in 3P%), which reached the Elite Eight as the Big Dance’s No. 1 overall seed. Worth noting: That group featured a generational finishing talent in Zion Williamson and only made it halfway to winning it all. Attempting to replicate that would be a lost cause.
While Duke won’t need to rank among the nation’s best in 3-point shooting, simply being solid enough to keep driving lanes open will be enough. However, the results speak for themselves when the Blue Devils rank in the Top 30 in both adjusted defensive and 3-point percentage:
All three of the Blue Devils’ titles since the new millennium have come while ranking among the nation’s best in both categories. If Duke is going to emerge as one of the top contenders to win it all in 2021-22, notching these two statistical benchmarks would be a plan with historical backing of success.
Examining Duke’s 2021-22 roster
Of course, these statistics and historical correlations to success mean nothing without analyzing the players set to don the Duke uniform. When it comes down to it, numbers only tell part of the story. It is the players that win games, not spreadsheets. The Blue Devils’ 2021-22 roster is not unlike others in recent memory; it features a couple of key returners but is mainly headlined by an incoming recruiting class ranked in the nation’s Top 5.
Freshmen set to be the stars.
Paolo Banchero is the first name to know this season. The 6-9 forward is heading to Durham regarded as the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2021 class. A superb athlete with excellent size and strength, “college-ready” describes him well. He is a mismatch nightmare for opponents, particularly with how he has developed his perimeter game. He is going to enter this season among the frontrunners for ACC Player of the Year.
Banchero’s frontcourt running mate will be fellow five-star AJ Griffin. A ridiculous athlete with a strong build, Griffin’s potential to cover 2-through-4 with the right development will play a crucial role in helping the Blue Devils’ reach that aforementioned elite defensive status. Banchero and Griffin both boast physiques that make it reasonable to project they will adapt to the college game quickly.
The third and final five-star of the class, Trevor Keels is a 6-5 guard set to compete for a starting role. Without DJ Steward and Matthew Hurt, the Blue Devils lack perimeter shooting. Keels is the most notable potential sniper and will need to instantly prove himself capable of hitting from deep.
Keels could potentially be Duke’s second-most important player this year. The Blue Devils need spacing and he is the most likely candidate to be a high-volume perimeter shooter capable of stretching defenses. Watch for Duke to potentially go as he goes, even if he is not the top scorer.
Jaylen Blakes (No. 101) rounds out the class. He is a high-motor guard who should bring intensity defensively, but also proving himself as a shooter would help bolster Duke’s spacing. Blakes will likely be tasked with filling an important role behind Jeremy Roach.
Are Roach and Williams ready to anchor?
Speaking of Roach, he is the team’s most important returner. Duke’s championship teams of the past have seemingly all featured an excellent floor general; Tyus Jones (2015), Jon Scheyer (2010), Jay Williams (2001), and Bobby Hurley (‘91 and ‘92). Without many other options, Roach’s shoulders now carry the burden of needing to be the leader in Coach K’s final year.
The 6-foot-1 guard experienced a rocky freshman year, averaging 8.7 points and 2.8 assists per game along the way. Perhaps most importantly, he shot just 31.3 percent from three last season despite nearly half of his shot attempts coming from beyond the arc. Improved efficiency, particularly from deep, is a must. Even with how good Banchero and the other freshmen project to be this season, a lot of Duke’s potential in ‘21-22 rests on the jump that Roach makes.
Fellow returning sophomore Mark Williams will also likely fill a starting role this season. The 7-foot big man out of IMG Academy put together a solid freshman season but showed development throughout the year. He was particularly dominant down the stretch, averaging 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game over his final six contests.
A strong interior finisher and dynamic shot-blocker, he will be Duke’s anchor inside on both ends of the floor. He ends possessions with the best of them, either with a slam on one end or a swat on the other. Was his scorching hot run to end last season indicative of what is to come? That is the big question.
Upperclassmen need to star in their roles
There are three core upperclassmen for Duke this season. The most notable is junior Wendell Moore. He is fresh off averaging 9.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game last season and will compete with Trevor Keels for a starting spot.
The big key for Moore this season will be showing improvement from 3-point range. He is a career 28.3 percent shooter from deep (92 attempts) and a breakthrough season would be monumental for him and the Blue Devils. Seeing improvement might not even be a major surprise; his 82.3 percent mark at the foul line (113 attempts) indicates a strong stroke.
Joey Baker is another wing who must showcase accuracy from distance. The former Top 50 recruit struggled last season, connecting on just 31.4 percent of his triples after hitting 39.4 percent the year before. Baker is not likely to fill a major role, but he can be valuable off the bench if he is hitting 3-pointers.
Graduate transfer Theo John is the last key upperclassman, having arrived after four years at Marquette. The 6-foot-9 big boasts a career 8.4 percent block rate, and averaged 8 points and 5 boards last season. John is a proven high-major impact big.
Even if these three all come off the bench, they need to provide experience and stability. That includes excelling in their roles, whether that be connecting from deep or blocking shots.
The future of Duke’s program rests on the shoulders of Jon Scheyer. However, the results of the present — including Coach K’s final season at the helm — will be dependent on the players that take the court. The end goal of winning the national title has not changed for Duke, but the stakes are a tad higher with the hopes of sending their Hall of Fame coach off with a sixth ring.
Can they get it done? We’ll have to wait to find out.