Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.
There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the five best teams, the five clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.
This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.
DUKE BLUE DEVILS
WHY THEY CAN WIN: Duke is the most talented team in college basketball this season, and frankly, it’s really not close. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that, with a healthy Harry Giles III in March, this group is more talented than the Karl Towns-led Kentucky team that took a 38-0 record into the Final Four.
They’re not going to flirt with a 40-0 season – no one has finished the ACC regular season unscathed since Duke in 1999 and no one has finished with just a single loss since Maryland in 2002 – but if Duke plays up to their potential, we’ll be talking about this as one of the best college basketball teams of all-time.
That’s not hyperbole, either.
Duke has two potential top five picks on their roster in Jayson Tatum and Giles. Tatum is a smooth, high-scoring 6-foot-9 small forward that isn’t all that dissimilar from Brandon Ingram. He has shorter arms, shorter hair and less tattoos, but he’s an elite 1-on-1 scorer with ever-improving range on his jumper.
Giles, at full strength and full health, is an absolute difference-maker. If he regains his explosiveness and his mobility, his ceiling as a player is somewhere between Chris Webber and Amare Stoudamire. For his one-and-done season, however, the most apt comparison is Towns, moreso for the role he’ll play as opposed to the player he is. Towns didn’t need the offense to run through him every night. He didn’t need to get 18 shots and lead the team in scoring, but the threat was always there. Like Towns, a healthy Giles would always have the potential to be the most dominant player on the floor every time he suits up. He wouldn’t have to be, not with the amount of talent surrounding him, but on the nights where Duke would need him to get 25 points and 15 boards, he could do that.
Duke also has another potential lottery pick on their roster in freshman Marques Bolden, who will share the front line with senior Amile Jefferson, who averaged nearly a double-double last season, and a former McDonald’s All-American in Chase Jeter.
The Blue Devils also have a kid by the name of Grayson Allen, the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year that is coming off of a season where he averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 boards, 3.5 assists and notched a 61.6 true-shooting percentage. No one at the high-major level had ever posted a season with those splits before Allen. Damian Lillard, who is now a top ten point guard in the NBA, did it at Weber State.
Allen did it at Duke.
And he might be Duke’s third-best player this season.
Sophomore Luke Kennard is talented enough to average 15 points in the ACC at any other school, and he’s likely going to be coming off the bench this season. Matt Jones will be asked to play the Quinn Cook role this year, moving into a much more limited role as a senior. Freshman Frank Jackson could end up being a first round pick by the time he leaves Duke.
Should I mention that Duke has the luxury of allowing Mike Krzyzewski to figure out how to get all of those pieces to fit together? KenPom.com, a well-respected website used to analyze college basketball team-by-team efficiency, has 15 seasons worth of data in its database. In seven of those 15 years, Duke has ranked top five in his offensive efficiency metric, including each of the last four years. Just once in those 15 seasons have the Blue Devils ranked outside the top 15.
And this team will be more talented than just about any team Coach K has fielded during that time.
WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The way I see it, there are three major question marks surrounding this team and this program, the biggest of which is the status of Giles’ knees.
A quick summary: In the summer before his sophomore season in high school, Giles shredded the ligaments in his left knee. He tore his ACL, his MCL and his meniscus. He missed his entire sophomore season, obviously, and didn’t really get back to full strength until his junior season in high school. After a terrific junior year and an impressive performance on his final summer circuit, Giles tore the ACL in his right knee in the opening game of his senior season in high school. He’s been rehabbing the knee ever since but wasn’t yet cleared despite being more than 11 months removed from the injury when the school announced that he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in early October.
Giles will be out at least six weeks. He’ll likely miss the start of the season, including the Champions Classic, and there’s no guarantee that: A) he’ll actually decide to suit up for the Blue Devils this season, of B) if he does play, he’ll be anywhere near 100 percent.
I don’t want to get into the specifics about whether or not it’s worth it for Giles to test himself (we did that on the podcast below and in the column linked here), but it is worth noting that while Duke can withstand the loss of Giles – Marques Bolden is a potential lottery pick in his own right, and Amile Jefferson averaged nearly a double-double last season – they are not the same team without him.
The second question I have with this Duke team is their point guard play. When Derryck Thornton announced that he was transferring out of the program, the Blue Devils were left with a roster that didn’t really have a true lead guard present. Frank Jackson might be able to adapt to that role down the road, but there are enough concerns with his ability to be a full-time point guard as a freshman that Grayson Allen is going to be asked to handle the ball more this season.
Allen, who was a second-team NBCSports.com All-American last season, can make plays off the dribble. But being able to create off the bounce is much different than being a facilitating point guard, particularly with the way that the Duke roster is constructed. The four best perimeter players on the roster – Allen, Jackson, Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard – are all at their best when they are allowed to have the ball in their hands and given a chance to create.
To be fair, this isn’t much different than what the Blue Devils dealt with last season. Coach K’s offense essentially was a series of isolations for Brandon Ingram and Allen, who were both near-impossible to stop in 1-on-1 situations. Considering the depth issues and roster limitations they had, it was a pretty successful 2015-16 campaign using that strategy. This season should probably be more of the same, although there is one major red flag with that: Most of Duke’s fellow contenders have terrific defensive back courts. We all saw what happened in the Champions Classic last season when the Blue Devils played a team with a pair of guards that could lock down ball-handlers, as Kentucky molly-whopped them and forced Allen into the worst game he’s ever played at the college level.
If that’s the blueprint to beat this Duke team as well, the teams that actually have the talent to beat them in March have the personnel to effectively employ that game-plan.
The third and final question mark with the Blue Devils comes on the defensive end of the floor. In the last five seasons, the five years in which Coach K has seemed to fully embrace the idea of building a team around one-and-done superstars, the Blue Devils have been unable to shed their defensive question marks.
In three of those five years, Duke finished outside the top 75 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings. Those three years resulted in two early rounds tournament exits (to No. 15 Lehigh in 2012 and No. 14 Mercer in 2014) and last year’s trip to the Sweet 16 that included single-digits wins over UNC Wilmington and Yale. In 2013, Duke finished 26th in defensive efficiency, but that also happened to be the year where their team was built around seniors Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee.
The outlier in that group?
The national title run in 2015. They finished the season 12th in defensive efficiency, but that was the result of Duke turning into a different team in the tournament. Duke ranked in the 60s in defensive efficiency before the tournament began and, in their six-game title run, played defense that, when projected over an entire season, would have been record-setting.
PREDICTION: The ACC is absolutely loaded this season. There are 12 teams that, on paper, look good enough to make a run at an at-large bid, and I don’t think it’s crazy to think 10 or 11 teams in the league can reach the Big Dance. We have four ACC teams in our preseason top 10 and six in our top 20.
For my money, this conference is as strong, top-to-bottom, as any league that we’ve ever seen.
And I think the Blue Devils win the regular season title by multiple games.
Will they win the national title? My pick is Kansas, but I’ll fully admit it’s something of a contrarian pick. Duke is the title favorite, and deservedly so.