DURHAM – The Duke basketball program got a nasty Halloween surprise when on All Hallow’s Eve, Wisconsin power forward Kevon Looney shocked the recruiting world and picked UCLA over either Duke or Florida.
But heading into early November, the Blue Devils still has reasonable hopes of celebrating Thanksgiving with the nation’s best recruiting class.
The chances of that happening depend on three prospects who visited Duke over the weekend of Oct. 25-27. Chicago center Jahlil Okafor, the nation’s consensus No. 1 prospect, was on hand for Duke’s exhibition victory over Bowie State, along with Minnesota point guard Tyus Jones, the consensus No. 5 prospect, and 6-6 wing Justise Winslow, the No. 12 man on the RSCI’s consensus ratings.
There is no firm timetable for their announcements, but at least Okafor and Jones – who insist that they are a package deal – are expected to make a decision by mid-November at the latest. Winslow, who has sometimes talked of joining the other two as a three-way package, is expected to decide at about the same time.
Duke is considered a front-runner for all three blue chip prospects. If Okafor and Jones stick to their pledge to go together, then it has to be Duke or Kansas, the only schools recruiting both. Kansas is also recruiting Winslow, although Arizona and maybe Florida are regarded as bigger threats to the Blue Devils.
But who knows? Looney certainly made that point thunderously clear. One recruiting site (24/7) listed predictions from more than 30 recruiting experts before the announcement. The majority predicted that he would pick Duke. A strong minority – including most of the late predictions – picked Florida. Two guys picked Tennessee. Not a single prognosticator mentioned UCLA.
Right now, the consensus is that Jones strongly favors Duke, while Okafor is still torn between Duke and Kansas. Take that for what it’s worth.
Looney’s decision opens the door for Duke to make a strong push for Reid Travis, a burly 6-7 power forward from Minneapolis and the nation’s No. 23 prospect, according to ESPN. In some ways, Reid may be a better fit for what the Blue Devils need than Looney. He’s not as highly rated, but he’s a physically powerful player (Looney is a slender, quick player), and he’s more likely to stay four years.
Travis will announce his pick Nov. 8.
Duke currently has just one early commitment for the Class of 2014. Grayson Allen, a 6-4 shooting guard from Riverview, Fla., committed to the Devils in April. Rated No. 24 nationally by ESPN, Allen is regarded as one of the best shooters in the class.
The recruiting Class of 2014 could be vitally important to Mike Krzyzewski’s program … or it could be an afterthought. That depends on what the team’s underclass stars do after next season. Duke will lose three seniors to graduation – and neither guards Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton nor forward Josh Hairston is expected to start this year. But freshman Jabari Parker and sophomore transfer Rodney Hood – two newcomers who made the preseason All-ACC team – could both be candidates to jump to the NBA next spring. In addition, sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon is admired by the pros and could be another early entry candidate if he has a big year.
The likelihood that two or three of those young standouts will leave early is what makes what happens over the next few weeks on the recruiting trail so vitally important to the Blue Devil program.
Beyond Bowl Eligibility
By beating Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Duke became bowl eligible for the second straight year. The Blue Devils became the fifth ACC team to reach the six-win standard.
But it’s worth noting that Duke was in almost exactly the same place one year ago – 6-2 and bowl eligible after an exhilarating last-second victory over UNC. That Blue Devil team promptly lost its last five games – including the Belk Bowl – to finish 6-7.
Is there any reason to think that won’t happen this season?
The Blue Devils themselves argue that they have a different mentality – that they learned from last season’s collapse.
“Last season we won six games and lost every game after that,” senior Ross Cockrell said. “You never want to lose your edge, and we might have done that last year after we became bowl eligible. This year, we make a pact – that whatever we do, whether running a route or a practice or a game, we want to finish stronger than we started.”
That’s well and good, but there are two tangible reasons to suspect that Duke will finish stronger than a year ago:
(1) Health – By midseason 2012, Duke’s injuries had reached epidemic proportions – especially on defense. By Game Nine, the Devils were without seven preseason starters, including such key players as linebacker Kelby Brown, cornerback Lee Butler and tight end Braxton Deaver.
This Duke team is not without injuries – Cockrell’s status was in doubt after the Virginia Tech game and linebacker C.J. France remains a question mark – but on the whole, the team’s key players are in good shape. In addition, there is more depth across the board this season, so if the Devils stumble, it would be hard to blame health issues.
(2) The schedule – A year ago, 6-2 Duke had to travel to Tallahassee to face Florida State for Game Nine. And they followed that up by a visit from Clemson. Those two games against those two powerful teams – a 48-7 loss to FSU and a 56-20 loss to Clemson – destroyed whatever momentum Duke had after opening 6-2.
By contrast, Duke followed the Virginia Tech game with a bye week to heal up and to get over the euphoria of becoming bowl eligible. And the next opponent on the schedule is a very beatable N.C. State team.
In fact, Duke’s final four games in 2013 include three teams that Duke defeated the last time they faced them – Wake Forest and UNC a year ago and N.C. State in 2009. The only ranked opponent still ahead is Miami – and the Devils barely lost to the Canes 52-45 a year ago.
That’s not to say Duke has any guaranteed wins remaining, but the Blue Devils have a much better chance against four teams that were a combined 17-16 (thanks to Miami’s 7-1 record – the other three all have losing records) going into the second weekend of November than the five teams that Duke played last season, which finished with a combined 47-24 record.