While it's hard to predict the future, it is reasonable to look at the past as a benchmark. Duke has been in similar situations before. In 1986, they lost Dawkins, Bilas, Alarie, and Henderson. The team that took the floor after that group left was not as polished, but was a defensive wrecking machine before injuries and academics took a toll. We still remember what they did to the Russians in an exhibition game. It was a great performance.
After Avery, Brand, and Maggette left (and Burgess transferred and Langdon graduated), Duke was expected to slide down the ACC. Didn't happen. Chris Carrawell and Shane Battier stepped up, Nate James continued his tradition of silent leadership, and Duke was primed for the Final Four until Dunleavy came down with mono.
And next year? Well, given all the instability of college basketball, it's hard to say. But with Chris Duhon able to step his game up a significant notch, as demonstrated last summer, a great defender in Dahntay Jones, and a smart, all-round winner in Daniel Ewing, Duke has a group they can look to for leadership. Add in Shelden Williams, who is all but certain to start, and that's four very solid positions filled. For the fifth spot, Duke can choose between Nick Horvath and Shavlik Randolph. Nick has had an up and down career, but we've seen him play enough to know he has a feel for the game. He needs consistent health to make it work for him, but he's capable of being a very solid contributor.
We know Michael Thompson has improved tremendously, and he'll push for time. Casey Sanders has always had the ability, if not the basketball mentality, to do well. At the least, Thompson, Sanders, Horvath and Randolph will provide significant size and depth.
In the backcourt, JJ Redick and Sean Dockery will push for playing time, and will improve Duhon and Ewing, who will have to fend them off. We don't expect to see Dockery starting right away, but Redick might push for minutes early.
One of the characteristics of this team may be defense. Duhon and Jones love to play it, and Ewing is pretty solid. Sanders and Williams give Duke the luxury of two shotblockers (they've only rarely had shotblockers over the years). Thompson is big and can bang and rebound from day one. Dockery is an excellent defender, and Redick is determined enough to push hard on defense. We weren't overwhelmed with Shavlik Randolph's defense, but he is capable, and he'll improve at Duke if he wants to play.
Duhon came to Duke with a reputation as a tremendous shooter, but that's been the least part of his game in many respects. Look for that to change as he asserts himself, and look for Redick to make zones impossible against Duke. That will open the court for Jones and Ewing and make it much more difficult to defend Williams down low.
Most importantly, though is the way Duke's system functions. Dunleavy can't be replaced, and no one will even try. What will happen, though is the team will have needs to fill, and whoever steps up will get minutes. Outside shooting? Redick, Duhon, Ewing. Tough inside play? Williams. Clutch plays? Duhon, Jones.
People almost never understand that about Duke, at least not people who aren't around a lot. It's not like replacing James Worthy. It doesn't work that way. What works is whatever works. That's why Robert Brickey basically played center at 6-5, and why Billy King just defended, and why Grant Hill played everywhere. Duke has a lot of options, and fortunately, Coach K really knows how to plug guys into the system. Having Dunleavy back would basically have meant the Final Four was easily within range, but watching this team come together is going to be fun, and they could do some real damage, too.