Dec 28, 2013; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Amile Jefferson (21) gets the crowd into their game against the Eastern Michigan Eagles at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

NCAA: Can Duke Win With Youth?

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In the weeks and months leading up to the start of practices in October, we’ll take a look at some of the biggest teams, players and stories for the 2014-15 NCAA college basketball season. Each team has one burning question we’ll take a look at.

It’s a question worth asking in this day and age of college basketball. Since the transition towards star freshmen being the makeup of their team, a number of programs have seen success.

However, only one team has really been able to take the nation by storm and win it all with inexperienced players, and the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats are usually considered an exception to the rule.

Duke has followed the the path of one-and-done players, as has just about every major program in college basketball. While they’ve continued to be successful during the regular season, their postseason experience hasn’t gone very well.

Last winning the national championship in 2010, the Blue Devils have had fluctuating success.

In fact, Duke’s last outright ACC regular-season championship came in 2006 and they tied with Maryland for the conference title in 2010. They’ve gone four straight years without a regular-season ACC crown, with rival North Carolina winning twice and Virginia and Miami taking the honors the last two years.

Four straight years without a conference title, eight straight years without an outright title.

This falls directly in the timeline of the one-and-done era of college basketball, which unofficially began with the 2006 NBA Draft. It’s no coincidence that Duke’s fall from graces of championships coincides with the one-and-done rules.

At first Duke did not focus solely on top recruits, as those top players were still choosing other schools over the Blue Devils as a pit stop to the NBA. However, now they are getting more and more top prospects, but the question remains: can Duke win with youth?

Jahlil Okafor gives Duke a legitimate center in 2014-15. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Last year was supposed to be the year. The year that Mike Krzyzewski proves that he can win without building around players for three or four years.

That’s been his bread and butter. The longer players stay around Coach K, the better they get and the better the team is in the long run.

Last year they had Jabari Parker, debated as the best prospect in the country. Alongside him was Rodney Hood, an underrated transfer from Mississippi State.

Together, along with their returning veterans, Hood and Parker were going to take the nation by storm.

Unfortunately, due to a number of issues (including Coach K going through an emotional devastation after his brother passed away), Duke was up and down all year. While still possessing the talent, they couldn’t put it all together.

They missed out on winning the ACC title in the regular season, lost to Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game and lost to Mercer in the second round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed. Interesting to note, Mercer was loaded with seniors looking to leave their mark, something that Duke made famous in college basketball.

Once again, Duke has loaded up with freshmen after losing Parker and Hood to the NBA. The headliners include Jahlil Okafor, a 6’10” center and the top recruiting prospect in the country.

Immediately, this gives the Blue Devils something they didn’t have last year: a genuine center. They used Parker as a center, though he played more of a small forward, really going without a big on the floor most of the time.

Okafor is a huge step up in that department.

Another freshman that will look to make some noise is Tyus Jones, a 6’1″ point guard. Though Rasheed Suliamon (if he can stay out of the dog house this year) and Quinn Cook have the veteran experience, Jones has NBA lottery pick potential.

He’ll challenge for the starting spot and will, at the very least, see significant playing time this year.

While Okafor and Jones will either be starting from day one or likely be starters early in the season, fellow freshmen Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow will be key contributors to the Duke bench, but could also fight their way into the starting rotation sooner or later.

Returning veterans for the Blue Devils include Marshall Plumlee (the latest in the never-ending line of Plumlees) and Amile Jefferson, both of whom will be key contributors to the team in the frontcourt. A steady rotation of Plumlee, Jefferson, Okafor and Semi Ojeleye is already better than what Duke had to offer last year.

The backcourt will be a battle between Jones, Cook, Suliamon, Winslow, Grayson and Matt Jones. The depth is definitely there for Duke, but it still remains to be seen if they can put it all together.

Feb 25, 2014; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Rasheed Sulaimon (14) shoots over Virginia Tech Hokies guard Will Johnston (25) at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Now, while this team looks solid, deep and will be highly ranked prior to the season, history is not on the side of the Dukies, though some could see it differently. Since that 2010 national title, Duke has gone to the Sweet 16 in 2011, lost in their first NCAA tournament game in 2012, made it to the Elite Eight in 2013 and lost in their first game in 2014.

So, if history tends to repeat itself, then the Blue Devils should be in for at least a Sweet 16 appearance this year, but that shouldn’t be the goal. That’s not good enough for the expectations of Blue Devils fans.

Except some must start to wonder if this team is good enough for the expectations.

Duke’s regular season schedule includes non-conference games against Michigan State, on the road at Wisconsin and a neutral site game against Connecticut. Their out-of-conference schedule isn’t exactly loaded, so the Blue Devils will have time to figure out their rotation and get things going.

They’ll have to figure it out, because the ACC schedule is grueling. With Louisville, Virginia and North Carolina all being viable contenders, not to mention Pittsburgh and Syracuse always being dangerous, Duke’s road to a national title will not be easy.

The pieces are in place for Duke to make a run at a national title, but they had that last year as well. And the year before that. And the year before that.

Duke’s not used to having their team led by freshmen. It’s something Coach K has been trying to adapt to.

He’s had Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker as his leading freshmen, but none of them have given him a national title. There’s hope that the combination of Okafor, Jones, Grayson and Winslow will break that trend in Duke and prove, once and for all, that the Blue Devils are capable of winning with freshmen under Coach K.

But this isn’t something that’s going to be determined in November or December. Duke’s always good during the regular season.

Even if they don’t come away with an ACC regular season title, they’ll be a favorite to win the title.

It’s up to the team and Krzyzewski to prove that they can do it. The 2014-15 season will be the measuring stick.

Five years of freshmen leaders and no titles may mean going back to the drawing board for the Blue Devils.

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Tags: Duke Blue Devils Jabari Parker Jahlil Okafor Mike Krzyzewski

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