Landing top big man Jahlil Okafor could have long-term implications for Duke.
DURHAM – Kansas won the battle, but three days later, Duke won the war.
It was an amazing week in mid-November as the nation’s two winningest programs over the last quarter century found themselves in a pair of head-to-head matchups. The first, was Nov. 12 on the court in Chicago; the second, was on the recruiting battlefield Nov. 15 when Chicago’s Jahlil Okafor and Minnesota’s Tyus Jones simultaneously completed the greatest package deal in modern recruiting history.
Kansas won the on-court matchup in the United Center, despite a spectacular performance by Duke freshman Jabari Parker.
But Okafor, the nation’s top-rated prospect, and Jones, the nation’s top-rated point guard prospect (and No. 4 overall, according to ESPN), gave Duke the long-term triumph by picking the Blue Devils over the Jayhawks.
Package deals are often proposed, but they rarely work out. There was some speculation that this one would fall apart because Jones strongly preferred Duke, while Okafor supposedly was leaning to Kansas. But the two AAU teammates insisted all along that they were committed to playing together in college and, in the end, both committed to the Blue Devils.
Make no mistake – Jones, a mature playmaker with the ability to make everybody around him play better – is a wonderful pickup for the Blue Devils, but Okafor is the one who really matters.
The commitment from the 6-10, 265-pounder from Chicago is a resounding answer to the myth that Duke can’t recruit or develop big men.
Forget for a moment that 15 of Mike Krzyzewski’s post players have been first-round NBA draft picks in the last three decades or that his last two starting centers – Miles and Mason Plumlee – were first-round draft picks and are currently playing in the NBA.
But fair of not, the barbs about Krzyzewski’s big man development had begun to hurt recruiting. Mitch McGary, a player the Blue Devils pursued very hard, reportedly said that he was told that if he went to Duke, all he’d do would be to rebound, play defense and set screens. Duke also missed recently on such big men prospects as Greg Monroe, Tony Parker and Austin Nichols.
The trend continued this fall. Duke was in it early for Goodluck Okonoboh, but the Blue Devils didn’t make it to the final cut for the slender 6-9 post player. Duke was a favorite to land 6-8 power forward Kevon Looney, but he surprised everybody and picked UCLA. That seemed to open the door for 6-8, 240-pound Reid Travis, but the Minnesota power forward opted instead to play for Coach K’s protégé Johnny Dawkins at Stanford.
Duke remained on the (long) list of suitors for 6-11 Texan Myles Turner (the nation’s No. 2 prospect) but was never regarded as more than a long-shot for the second best center in the class.
That chain of events made Okafor one of the most critical recruits in many, many years for Krzyzewski.
In the short term, without Okafor, Duke would be facing an uncertain future in the middle. True, Amile Jefferson ought to be bigger and better next season, and there’s always a chance that Marshall Plumlee could follow in his older brother’s footsteps and become a force in the middle, but the harsh truth is right now, Duke’s best post player in Jabari Parker (he’s also the team’s best wing).
So without Okafor, the Devils could be in big trouble in the middle next season when Parker heads for the NBA and Jefferson and Plumlee are left to hold down the middle.
And in the long term, if Okafor had picked Kansas, the story of Duke’s big man problems would continue to snowball, making it that much tougher for the Devils to land one of their 2015 big man targets.
Now, Okafor is on board to anchor Duke inside in 2014-15. It’s too much to hope that he’ll join forces with his friend from Chicago – Parker – but Duke should still have plenty of surrounding talent next season.
That group could contain one more significant recruit. Justise Winslow visited Duke for Countdown to Craziness on Oct. 18 with Jones and Okafor and has at times talked of joining his two friends in a package deal – although never with the insistent certainty of Okafor and Jones.
Adding the 6-5 small forward (ESPN’s No. 14 prospect) to the class, along with long-committed 6-4 wing guard Grayson Allen (No. 24), would likely give Duke the top-rated recruiting class in the nation.
And that outcome would make the loss to Kansas in Chicago a lot easier to swallow.
Still A Basketball School?
When David Cutcliffe met with the press on Tuesday morning before Duke’s crucial football game with Miami, the media turnout was sparse.
Most of the Duke beat writers were in Chicago, preparing to cover the Duke-Kansas basketball game that night. That prompted the question – does it bother Cutcliffe to be coaching at a basketball school?
“No,” Cutcliffe answered. “It should remain a basketball-first school. That’s what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve earned. That’s tremendous. What we want in addition is to be a great football school.
“I’m not being gracious. I’m a Duke basketball fan, too – and was before I came here. How could you not be? Now I get seats.”
Duke might still be a basketball school, but it’s getting harder and harder to ignore Cutcliffe’s football program. Four days after the Devils lost a heartbreaker to Kansas on the hardwood, Cutcliffe’s gridders took the field at Wallace Wade Stadium and hammered Miami 48-30 to seize control of the ACC Coastal Division race.
What was most impressive about the win was that Duke lined up and ran it right down Miami’s throat. There was little finesse or cleverness about Duke’s first victory over the Canes – it was more a matter of Duke overpowering Miami up front – rushing for an incredible 358 yards against a team that had given up more than 200 rushing yards just once. Duke also dominated the fourth quarter, breaking open a 31-30 game with a 17-0 blitz to finish the game.
“Sometime when you are leading by a point, the tendency is to wish the half was over,” Cutcliffe said. “I told the seniors to wish the half would last forever: ‘You guys are going to win the football game.’”
Duke’s sixth straight win puts the Blue Devils all alone in first place in the Coastal Division of the ACC. The Devils need a split in their final two games at Wake Forest and at UNC to clinch at least a tie for the Division title – with a two-game sweep, Duke plays Florida State in the ACC title game in Charlotte.
That’s quite journey for a Duke team picked lsat in the division last summer at the ACC kickoff. But it might not be the last time Duke is in the ACC title mix.
“We’re not going away,” Cutcliffe said. “This is no accident. Get used to it.”