Duke reloads for title run

Published 6:18 pm Tuesday, July 19, 2011

RALEIGH — Many college basketball programs would be crippled by the personnel losses Duke experienced the last two seasons.
Over the last two springs, the Blue Devils have lost two 2,000-point career scorers (Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer), a player who fell 89 points short of 2,000 (Nolan Smith) and another player who was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft (Kyrie Irving).
After the 2010 season, Duke also lost two big guys in Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas, whose rebounding and defense proved essential in bringing coach Mike Krzyzewski his fourth NCAA championship.
The departure of all that talent made it essential for Krzyzewski to bring in a monster recruiting haul in 2011. It appears the Blue Devils have done that with a class led by Winter Park, Fla., guard Austin Rivers.
“I anticipate that this is going to be a vintage class,” All-Star Sports recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons said. “The quality, the talent is there at every position.”
In addition to Rivers, Duke signed point guard Quinn Cook, center Marshall Plumlee and forwards Michael Gbinije and Alex Murphy, who is graduating a year early to join the Blue Devils.
Rivers, the son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, is considered one of the top recruits in the nation and a candidate to leave after one season for the NBA Draft. The other players give Duke impressive talent at a variety of positions and could remain with the Blue Devils for a more extended period to form a new foundation for the program.
“The strength of this class is Austin Rivers and then the overall diversity of it,” ESPN.com analyst Dave Telep said. “I think this class gives Duke a lot of competitiveness, a lot of opportunities for guys to compete at practice and for time on the floor.”
Scout.com rates the class second in the nation behind Kentucky’s, making it Duke’s highest-ranked class since 2005.
That would seem to make Duke a cinch to remain a Final Four contender for the next few years. But recruiting rankings aren’t always a good predictor of future success.
The Blue Devils’ class of 2005 recruiting haul also was rated No. 2 in the nation by Scout.com, with incoming center Josh McRoberts rated the nation’s top player by Gibbons.
But the class failed to live up to the expectations, and the program experienced a significant dip in NCAA tournament success as a result. McRoberts stayed just two seasons and made only a mild impact.
Guard Greg Paulus, the most productive player in the class, showed heart and hustle but proved limited athletically. Eric Boateng and Jamal Boykin transferred early in their careers, and Martynas Pocius ended up as a little-used career reserve.
“The class did not live up to its billing,” Gibbons said.
As a result, Duke suffered. J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams carried the Blue Devils through the 2005-06 season, but the next two seasons were disappointing by Duke standards. In 2007, Virginia Commonwealth eliminated the Blue Devils from the NCAA tournament in the first round.
In 2008, after edging Belmont by one point in the opening round, Duke lost to West Virginia in a second-round game.
But Gibbons is convinced the current class will be far better than the disappointing group from 2005, and one reason is that it’s led by a player who’s considered a near-certain pro.
Publicly, at least, Krzyzewski is keeping expectations for Rivers from getting too high.
Rivers said recently that he needs to strengthen his skills and body and develop a defensive mindset, and Krzyzewski seems to agree.
“He’s got to change,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s got to learn to become a complete player. For any freshman coming in, there’s a huge difference in playing with older guys, more physical. It’s a whole different thing.”
Others are less cautious about predicting Rivers will have an immediate, significant impact at Duke. They say Rivers has the ability to score in multiple ways, that he is mature and understands basketball extremely well because of what he has learned from his father.
“He gives them outstanding guard skills, scoring ability from outside, (and) he’s a prolific 3-point marksman and will help make up for the loss of Nolan Smith,” Gibbons said.
The McDonald’s and Naismith Foundation national high school player of the year has played well in postseason all-star games. Rivers had 14 points and four assists in the McDonald’s All-American game and 16 points and four assists in the Jordan Brand Classic in Charlotte.
And though Krzyzewski sounds like he will demand a lot from Rivers, he also praises Rivers’ attitude.
“We’re happy to have him,” Krzyzewski said. “He has a beautiful heart and an amazing, competitive spirit.”
In this age of “one-year wonder” freshmen, many college coaches seek balance out of their recruiting classes.
A coach who recruits too many players seeking a one-season stopover on the way to the pros risks losing continuity in his program. Duke shouldn’t have that problem with the class of 2011, because aside from Rivers, the players are seen as long-term contributors.
Plumlee is a 7-footer who might not make an immediate impact because he will play behind his brothers, Mason and Miles, plus Ryan Kelly. But Marshall Plumlee is big, runs the floor hard and improves constantly.
Cook scored 14 points in the McDonald’s All-American game, demonstrating that he deserves to be considered one of the nation’s elite point guards. And Gbinije and Murphy possess size and perimeter skills that will make them difficult for opponents to guard.
Telep recently did a study that he said showed that Duke has recruited better than any school over the last 10 years. He expects this class to add to that legacy.
“Mike Krzyzewski is on the tail end of his career,” Telep said. “He is aspiring to go out with championships. To do that, you have to have pros, and he has one in Austin Rivers. And this class has the ability to keep them near the top of the league, which has them in contention nationally. You have to do it. There’s no room to slip up at the level at which they compete. So it was important to reload with this group.”