Just last week, Duke took its preseason exhibition trip to Canada, showing off some impressive talent in the process. While the 3rd-ranked incoming freshman, Cam Reddish, sat out for the Blue Devils, coach Mike Krzyzewski was still able to run out the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked freshman in this year’s class in R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson.
My in-depth, professional analysis of those two guys? Wow. I mean, like…really wow.
Williamson defies physics, with a 6-foot-7, 285-pound frame that can get off the floor at the free throw line and land under the basket having already dunked a ball through the hoop. Barrett is long and smooth. And both find that small piece of my heart that loves a fellow lefty.
Despite losing the likes of Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr. and Trevor Duval from last year’s roster, Duke seems to be the favorite to be ranked No. 1 when college hoops season opens up. It’s the third straight season Duke has been atop the polls. They have been ranked in the Preseason Top 10 in each of the last 10 seasons. Duke won two championships (2010 and 2015) in that span.
Coach Krzyzewski has gone from a coach who developed stars over 2-3 years to embracing the one-and-done culture of college basketball and churning through a roster year after year…
…which brings us to Syracuse basketball, where coach Jim Boeheim, for the most part, still continues to prefer the guys who will stay for a couple years. Sure, Boeheim has had his share of one-and-dones, like Carmelo Anthony, Donte Greene, Tyler Ennis, Chris McCullough and Malachi Richardson. But, other than Anthony, none of the others were truly elite talents. Duke has produced 14 Top 10 draft picks since 2000. Syracuse has had just four.
But while Duke is bringing in a host of shiny new toys, Syracuse returns the exact same starting lineup that went to the Sweet 16 last season. In fact, Syracuse returns 94 percent of its scoring from last season, to go along with 91 percent of its rebounds, 94 percent of its assists, 92 percent of its steals and 94 percent of its blocks.
In comparison, Duke returns just 14 percent of its scoring, 31 percent of its rebounds, 15 percent of its assists, 21 percent of its steals and 37 percent of its blocks.
So which would you rather have: supreme talent and little experience or above-average talent and extensive experience?
In the last 10 seasons, eight of the champions have been led by upperclassmen:
2018: Villanova (Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges)
2017: North Carolina (Joel Berry III, Kennedy Meeks)
2016: Villanova (Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Ryan Arcidiacono)
2014: Connecticut (Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright)
2013: Louisville (Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva)
2011: Connecticut (Kemba Walker)
2010: Duke (Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith)
2009: North Carolina (Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington)
Only twice in the last 10 years has a champion been led by underclassmen:
2015: Duke (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen, Tyus Jones)
2012: Kentucky (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague)
Naturally, the two schools that have had freshmen lead them to championships are the two schools that have been the best at landing several five-star players year after year. In some cases, loads of elite talent.
But, the majority of the time, talent PLUS familiarity has bred championship basketball. Think about it…with Syracuse returning all five starters (and a healthy Bourama Sidibe and Howard Washington), all those guys already know each other’s tendencies, likes and dislikes. The chemistry that can only come from playing together is already present.
Last year’s run to the Sweet 16 also means this season’s Syracuse team has already achieved success together. Knowing how to win in close games and in pressure situations AT THE COLLEGE LEVEL is extremely valuable.
And, building off last year, the Orange will be able to have another year of development. Marek Dolezaj seems to be the classic case of a guy who will grow by leaps and bounds between his freshman and sophomore campaigns. For as good as Oshae Brissett was in his freshman season, another year could put him in the conversation for a first round pick in next year’s draft.
With that kind of experience, the newcomers (Jalen Carey, Robert Braswell, Buddy Boeheim and even transfer Elijah Hughes) don’t have to be forced into a prominent role before they’re ready. Yet, they can absorb some minutes and provide the depth that was sorely lacking from last season’s team. Imagine a world where Tyus Battle, Frank Howard and Brissett don’t all have to play 38-40 minutes a night.
Now, let’s be honest…who WOULDN’T want the type of talent Coach K is bringing in this season? I mean…it’s a good problem to have. But, let’s provide the cautionary tale:
The parallel in the NBA game is LeBron James and his treks to Miami and then back to Cleveland. In 2010, James joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to create the ultimate Big 3. In 2015, when James went back home, he brought Kevin Love with him to team up with Kyrie Irving. As awesome as those collections of talent were, neither team won a championship in their first seasons together. After a year of playing together, gelling and coming together, both the Heat in 2012 and the Cavaliers in 2016 took home the title.
In college basketball, though, many of these teams with one-and-dones only have that one shot to win a title. After the season, the elite guys move onto the NBA and the college team is left to pick up the pieces, add more blue-chippers and see if they can catch magic in a bottle the following season.
This season, Duke will have ridiculous amounts of freshman talent, the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in the same recruiting class. Syracuse will have a nice blend of veteran talent, familiarity and cohesiveness and a sprinkle of quality freshman talent.
Will Syracuse’s experience trump Duke’s premium talent? Recent history suggests it’s much more likely than you might think…