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.