A year after a freshman carried Duke, the Blue Devils are doubling down — and then some — on first-year players.
It's goodbye, Jabari Parker, and hello, Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen.
How well those four immediate-impact recruits adjust to the college game will determine whether Duke claims its fifth national title or whether the Blue Devils are a candidate to be knocked out of the NCAA tournament early — as they were by Mercer in Parker's only season in Durham.
Three of those freshmen — Okafor, Jones and Winslow — are penciled into vital roles, and Allen also should contribute.
"College basketball's very young. If you look at the really good teams, or the teams that are projected to be very good, the majority of them are young," associate head coach Jeff Capel said. "It's a little bit abnormal to have seniors, especially seniors who have been pretty good for three years prior."
The Blue Devils enter Mike Krzyzewski's 35th season in Durham in their customary spot among the favorites to win the Atlantic Coast Conference and make a strong push for their 12th Final Four under their Hall of Fame coach.
For that to happen, the upperclassmen will have to grow comfortable in their supporting roles around that talented freshman class — especially Okafor and Jones, friends since the third grade who committed to Duke last fall during a nationally televised, split-screen joint ceremony from their high schools in Chicago and Minnesota.
"All four of these guys have been just like younger brothers," said point guard Quinn Cook, the team's only scholarship senior. "It's made my job a lot easier as a leader."
Okafor averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds as a high school senior, then became the fourth Duke player to earn the MVP award at the McDonald's All-America game. Winslow and Jones — who scored 25 points per game as a senior — also played in that all-star game.
"I think we're similar in a lot of ways. ... Basketball's our first love," Okafor said of his relationship with Jones. "We both just want to win, and that's ultimately what brought us to the same university."
Some things to know about Duke's chase for its fifth national title:
OKAFOR THE WIN: The focal point of this Duke team will be the 6-foot-11 Okafor, who was dominant in the team scrimmages that were open to the public. A center hasn't led the Blue Devils in scoring since Elton Brand in 1999. Okafor says the coaches "want me to focus on being the most dominant player in college basketball this year. They feel that's the best chance for us to win."
WHO'S AT THE POINT? The most discussed position battle at Duke this offseason was at point guard, where Cook and Jones are the top candidates. One possibility is that Jones and Cook — who has averaged nine points during his career — play together. "I didn't look at him as a threat," Cook said of Jones. "When he committed, I looked at it as another opportunity for us to be really good. I never looked at it as a competition thing."
DEPTH AT GUARD: Duke has long been known for its strong guard play and this year should be no exception because Capel says his team has six guards who "are capable of playing big-time minutes and being contributors." In addition to Tyus Jones and Cook, that list figures to include junior Rasheed Sulaimon, sophomore Matt Jones and Allen and Winslow. It took a while for Sulaimon to settle into his role last year playing with Parker and Rodney Hood, but he found his stroke in the second half, hitting double figures in 11 of the last 14 games.
1K FOR COACH K: Krzyzewski enters the season 17 victories shy of 1,000 for his career, which includes five years at Army. Duke's 17th game this year comes at Louisville on Jan. 17. It's not inconceivable to think that his first shot at that milestone could come on fellow Hall of Famer Rick Pitino's home court.
LOSING STREAK: Duke will try not to make history during its opener Nov. 14 against Presbyterian. The Blue Devils haven't lost three straight games since the end of 2006-07. Duke entered the offseason on a two-game slide, falling to Virginia in the ACC tournament final before being knocked off by Mercer in the signature upset of the NCAA tournament.
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