Duke’s 2021-22 basketball season was already shaping up as an intriguing storyline before coach Mike Krzyzewski announced earlier this month that he will retire once it’s complete. For the first time in more than a quarter-century, the Blue Devils are entering a new campaign after missing the NCAA Tournament, and that alone meant there were going to be lots of eyeballs on one of the sport’s storied programs.
But now that Duke’s all-time great coach is on the way out, the Blue Devils will be under a national microscope even more intense than expected. So how will they fare in the bright spotlight after a 13-11 season? The last time Duke missed the NCAA Tournament was the 1994-95 season, when Krzyzewski missed much of the campaign due to health issues. They returned to the NCAA Tournament the following year but were a No. 8 seed and lost by 15 to Eastern Michigan in the first round.
Can this version of the bounce-back Blue Devils fare better? With another highly-touted recruiting class on the way in and some quality returners including Wendell Moore, Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams, there is certainly no reason for Duke to miss the Big Dance again. For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff — as we also did recently with Kentucky after its down year — our writers are offering takes on what we should expect from the Blue Devils during Coach K’s farewell season.
30 wins | 1st in ACC | Elite Eight of NCAA Tournament
Duke enrolled four five-star prospects in advance of last season, which suggested, on a surface level, that the Blue Devils were LOADED. But one of the points I made over and over again, after Duke started struggling, was that none of the freshmen were consensus top-10 recruits and/or guaranteed lottery picks; point being that all five-star prospects are not the same.
Zion Williamson was a five-star prospect.
So was Mark Williams.
They are not the same.
To be clear, there are many reasons Duke struggled last season — the most obvious being that they were heavily reliant on first-year players in the middle of a global pandemic that robbed all newcomers of important offseason workouts and easy non-league games that help create chemistry and increase development. But the lack of high-end talent was also definitely among the reasons. And when Jalen Johnson quit the team midseason, Duke was left without a single freshman who was ranked in the top 20 of his high school class.
That won’t be a problem this season.
Duke is only enrolling three five-star prospects this year, but all three — Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, Trevor Keels — are top-20 recruits, two of them — Banchero, Griffin — are projected top-10 picks for the 2022 NBA Draft and the best of the bunch — Banchero — is likely to be the No. 1 overall selection. As a result, this Duke team, from a talent perspective, will look a lot like some of the best Duke teams from recent years, and that’s why I’m a firm believer that Mike Krzyzewski’s final season will be a good one. Will it result in Coach K’s sixth national championship? Perhaps not. But I personally wouldn’t rule out anything with an offense built around Banchero, and the fact that I have the Blue Devils ranked eighth in the Top 25 And 1 means I believe Duke should be considered the favorite to at least win what would be Kryzewski’s 13th ACC regular season title.
30 wins | 2nd in ACC | Sweet 16
A note on our win-total prediction: we’re forecasting this out for the entirety of the season, meaning this is how many dubs we expected the Devils to finish with once they’ve played their final NCAA Tournament game. If you’re going to forecast wins, schedule matters. Let’s look at the non-con as it stands now. What we know: vs. Kentucky on the opening night in the Champions Classic; vs. Gonzaga in Las Vegas on Nov. 26; vs. a to-be-determined (and high-quality) Big Ten team on the road in early December. Duke is also hosting a four-team MTE that includes Army (this is a nice touch in K’s sendoff season), Hartford and Campbell. There’s also a homer against The Citadel mixed in there. I’ll split the difference and say Duke has two losses in non-league play before getting to its 20-game ACC schedule, which also includes roadies against UNC, Florida State and Virginia, for starters.
Duke hasn’t won a standalone ACC regular season title since 2006, so I’ll pick the Blue Devils to finish second. All told, I think 25 or 26 wins in the regular season + ACC tourney is objectively reasonable, if not a little optimistic. (Consider what my colleagues are detailing with the roster situation, too, as it will be an interesting group.)
Now, there is a unique component to this season: all the pomp and hoopla attached to K’s final year as head coach. We don’t know how much of all of that is going to have an impact on the team’s performance. If it does, will it be good? By the time the postseason arrives, covering K will be a cottage industry all on its own. We won’t know which game will be K’s last … unless Duke makes the title game. I’m going to bet against that, but I do think this team will have enough to be a No. 2 seed, make the Sweet 16 and lose a good one against a top-10 team. My prediction: Coach K’s final game happens in the same city where one of his greatest wins took place: Philadelphia. In 1992, Duke beat Kentucky in the Elite Eight, a game universally acknowledged as one of the three greatest in college basketball history. Philly’s one of the four regional sites for next year, and 30 wins will get K to exactly 1,200 for his career.
33 wins | 1st in ACC | NCAA Tournament champions
Duke enrolled a top-five recruiting class last year comprised of four five-star prospects that inflated preseason expectations, only for the Blue Devils to go 13-11. So I understand if you’re hesitant to buy back into the Duke buzz. But this recruiting class — with three five-star, top-20 prospects — is a different bunch.
Paolo Banchero is a true No. 1 overall pick contender. AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels are likely future first-rounders. And then Duke also brings back another NBA talent in Mark Williams. Those talents, combined with the addition of transfer Theo John and returning pieces like Jeremy Roach and Wendell Moore, should launch the Blue Devils back to the top of the ACC and their talent pool on the whole could be good enough to send Coach K out on top.
24 wins | 5th in ACC | Second round in NCAA Tournament
The talent is there for Duke to bounce back with a vintage level of success in Krzyzewski’s final season, but there are a couple of reasons for unease about this squad’s championship potential. As constructed now, the roster would likely produce a nine-man rotation including four freshmen and two sophomores. Though senior Joey Baker and Marquette graduate transfer Theo John will bring some age to the mix, both figure to be reserves, which leaves this team trending too hard in a youthful direction.
Secondly, you can expect a dip in Duke’s 35.2% 3-point shooting mark from last season. That respectable mark ranked 112th nationally but should fall with leading scorer and top outside shooter Matthew Hurt (44.4% from 3 on 5.3 attempts per game) departing for the NBA Draft. The perimeter shooting will have to come from somewhere else. Roach (31.3% on 3.5 attempts per game) and Baker (31.4% on 2.2 attempts) are the team’s top returning shooters. The lack of proven outside options will put some pressure on five-star shooting guard prospect Trevor Keels to be an immediate 3-point shooting threat.
If you’re looking for optimism, look to the defensive side. Duke ranked 79th nationally last season in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Duke can be a vastly improved defensive team this season. Defense is largely about effort and buy-in, and it’s not difficult to see this team being a squad that lays it out there every game due to the circumstances of this season. Ultimately, though, the limitations of this team’s youth and outside shooting will keep Duke from sending Krzyzewski out with another ACC or national title.