There are a number of ways in which college and professional basketball differ from one another -- other than the obvious: that the pros are older, more highly skilled, and paid. One of the major differences is the way in which team rosters are built. In the pros, there's a draft. Based on a fixed draft order, teams will acquire the rights of various players for a minimum of three years - usually. After signing with a team, a player's rights may be traded to another team or outright released on to the open market.
With no draft-like process in college, the art of building a roster is vastly different from that of a professional team. The player becomes the party with the "power of choice", not the team. In fact the teams are the ones who must audition for the player to essentially choose them. More often than not, the best players from the deepest talent pools will choose to play with one another at the top programs, creating a system where the same few schools can dominate the game for decades despite changes in players and coaching staffs. Unlike the pros, however, players are limited to four complete seasons (sometimes five depending on injury) at their school of choice. Players who are considered "game changers" may play as little as one season. And though scholarships are essentially one-year contracts, very few coaches elect to deprive their players the opportunity to play out their eligibility.
Over the course of his near 30 year career at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski has tried several different recruiting approaches. Some were successful, and some were not. One factor to keep in mind is the unique situation Duke is in when recruiting. Specifically, the national approach and student body that the school and program attracts. A great majority of schools recruit student-athletes and a general student makeup from within their own state. Duke, however, takes a much more broad approach. So, when the Blue Devils earn a commitment from another town or state's hometown hero, there is a special sense of accomplishment that seems to emanate from the Blue Devil fan base.
One common thread at the beginning of most players' recruiting process is the desire to "stay home". It's not only the ties to Mom and Dad, but also to all of their local social networks and familiar surroundings. There's also the financial reason – even if a player is on a "full ride", there is still great expense for his family to be able to travel to see him in action or to simply visit. As such, several teams make a living on keeping local prep talent "home" for college. Two prime examples that come to mind are the 2006 LSU team that beat Duke in the Sweet Sixteen that year with most key players from Louisiana, and the 2000 Michigan State team, led by Mateen Cleaves and his friends from Flint, Michigan.
Duke, however, is not able to concentrate on such a small pool of talent. Duke is a small, private school, in a state with several [much] larger public schools. Consumers who attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, or another member of the state's public university system dominate the state. As such the very culture and environment in which many players are born and bred leave the Blue Devils with a somewhat uphill climb from the start. Duke's record of academic excellence adds another twist. While a Duke education is prestigious, it is also a difficult path to take – requiring extra effort off the court. Of course the program provides a tremendous academic support system, but the challenge remains. Such a challenge usually disqualifies the program from recruiting specific players in each class. Given the academic requirements and the commitment to being a true "student athlete", the concept of being a "Duke kid" has evolved into part of the every day recruiting vocabulary for those who follow Duke recruiting.
Looking back in the archive, provides a good illustration: In the 1981 class, Coach K went after big-name talent. He was close to signing a number of stars, especially Chris Mullin (St. John's) and Uwe Blab (Indiana). He targeted several players, but he missed out on most of the top rated prospects on his list. This was the first lesson that he learned, and it is something that he has, apparently, never forgotten. It is now part of Duke's recruiting philosophy. The program targets a smaller number of players overall and attempts to "build a relationship" with them. This furthers the idea of the Duke "family" which has roots embedded in a more personalized recruiting approach. Of course, the downside is that should a player not decide to cast his lot with Duke, the program can be left scrambling or just "out of luck" as in '81.
In 1982, a smaller number of prime targets were identified. The jewel in the class was a guard from Washington D.C. by the name of Johnny Dawkins. Dawkins was the first of many high-ranking recruits to join the Duke family, and he may have been Coach K's most important. The 6'4 guard made Duke a legitimate destination for top-rated talent, and the rest of the class that joined Johnny that year solidified the notion. Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, and David Henderson (plus two marginally-rated players) played four years together and as seniors, just missed out on winning the big prize.
The group staying together for four seasons was a second, but just as important, notion. College players have four years of eligibility, and then need to be replaced. Of course the replacement process isn't a sure thing. New players have their own learning curve that needs to be meshed with the career paths of those upperclassmen. Meshing the old and the new players is often one of, if not the, most important ingredient for teams' success during the season.
Over Coach K's career, Duke has often brought in a number of top recruits from the same class. The Dawkins / Alarie / Bilas / Henderson class was the first. A few other large classes of top recruits:
In the seasons that are not big (numbers) recruiting classes, the staff will bring in smaller classes, or try to get a single impact player. Elton Brand's class was followed by Corey Maggette, the only player signed in 1998. The Jason Williams class was followed with Chris Duhon and Andre Sweet, with Sweet never considered to be a key recruit – he was targeted pretty late and he wasn't highly ranked, and he was a Blue Devil for only part of his freshman year. The only scholarship player in the 2003 class following the Redick/Williams/Randolph/etc class was Luol Deng – the top player in the class to attend college.
This strategy of building large classes and trying to get a number of players to be upper classmen simultaneously has a drawback. What happens when they all leave together? The smaller classes, referred to as "bridge classes", are left to maintain the program until the next big class is ready to go after their championship. For many years, something extremely fortunate seemed to happen to prevent a crash.
When Brand, Avery, and Maggette became the first Devils to turn pro early and Chris Burgess decided to transfer to Utah, it looked like 2000 might be a tough season. No one remembers now, but another key player was missing, as Mike Chappell has transferred to Michigan State the year before. What happened in 2000 was that three remaining players, Chris Carrawell, Shane Battier, and Nate James, were called upon to change their games from that of secondary options and role players to stars, and that Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mike Dunleavy were ready to play as freshmen.
In 2003, after Williams, Boozer, and Dunleavy went pro, Duke's second transfer, Dahntay Jones, added experience, and the new freshmen class, although not nearly as good as they would be with more experience, were able to contribute. This was also a down year for the ACC, as North Carolina and Maryland had lost a lot of players themselves and no one else was ready to step up.
Many Duke fans on various forums and outlets are questioning if the Duke program is what it once was. The past couple of years have not been as good as the 1999 to 2004 era, but is that a trend or an event? Is this "slump" caused by a series of bad recruiting happenings, or by choices that were good at the time but didn't work out over the course of various careers? What steps are being taken so that this doesn't happen again, and will those steps be successful? And how bad is this slump, anyway?
First, what has gone wrong and what why? To get there, you have to look at the contrast between the most recent teams and the more successful ones from a few years earlier. There is a big difference between the least successful team in 2006-07 (the one that lost in the first round to VCU) and the national championship winning 2000-01 team. The 2007 team relied mainly on freshmen and sophomores, and even most of those were not players with bright NBA futures (if at all), while the 2001 team had 5 starters who would start in the NBA, including a senior who was the consensus National Player of the Year, and a sophomore who was named NPOY for one award and would be the consensus winner in 2002 as a junior.
How did it happen that the 2007 team was so young? The bridge years between the Redick class and the McRoberts class lost significant steam when Luol Deng went pro after one year and Shaun Livingston never showed up. The 2005 class immediately had to have additional players, but it left Duke recruiting what many recruiting analysts believed to be one of the weaker classes of the decade.
Let's look at why the 2003 and 2004 teams (after Williams, Boozer, and Dunleavy departed) were much better than the 2007 and 2008 teams (after Redick. and Williams departed). When the Boozer class left, all three were juniors. Casey Sanders and Nick Horvath remained from their recruiting class, although Horvath was reclassified as a junior because he redshirted due to an injury in 2001. Dahntay Jones was a senior, having come in as a transfer. Junior Chris Duhon and sophomore Daniel Ewing already had succeeded in their college careers, and the new freshmen included four players who were ready to play, two as regulars (sometimes as starters) and two who provided depth on the bench. The 2003 team played seven players semi-regularly: Chris Duhon, Daniel Ewing, Dahntay Jones, Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph, J.J. Redick, and Casey Sanders. Six of them played or are playing in the NBA.
A strong bridge and a key transfer helped in 2003. And then in 2004, everybody got better and everyone was back except for Jones and Sanders. Luol Deng replaced Jones and Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph covered the post.
In 2007, after Redick and Williams graduated, there were no seniors on the roster. None of that class had redshirted a year. There were no transfers. Josh McRoberts and DeMarcus Nelson both have played in the NBA, and Gerald Henderson will (Jon Scheyer might), but that's it for NBA talent.
The 2003 class was one player. This seems like a mistake, but there was a good reason for that mistake – the now defunct 5/8 rule that limited programs to signing no more than five players in any one year or eight players within a two year period. Duke awarded five scholarships to the 2002 group while Lee Melchionni played on the team as a walk-on, promised that he would get a scholarship the next year. That meant that there were only two scholarships available for the 2003 class. Luol Deng and Kris Humphries got them, and signed their National Letters of Intent. At the last minute, Humphries decided to seek a release from Duke so he could sign with Minnesota amid concerns of immediate playing time.
So in 2007, the 2002 class was gone. The 2003 class was limited to one player and he was gone. The 2004 class was in their junior year. It was a three-man class. DeMarcus Nelson had signed early, as a sophomore, but he was coming off two injury-plagued years. David McClure was coming off a red-shirt season and major knee surgery, so was re-classified as a sophomore. And Shaun Livingston, the supposed jewel in the class, was a Clipper and had been for the past few years. The 5/8 rule, combined with injury problems, and individual decisions, prevented any continuity between the beginning of the Redick-Williams years and the end and immediate aftermath of that era. In short, the bridge fell down.
And that was the third change in recruiting philosophy. Previously it was exceedingly rare that the Blue Devil scholarship allocation was at capacity. Once the rotation appeared set for the foreseeable future, there were no more spaces available. Thusly, the bridge recruiting seasons tended to be quite small. Then, after a limited in 2005 (bringing Reggie Love back from oblivion and giving minutes to Patrick Johnson), Krzyzewski appears to be moving towards signing or, at least seriously targeting, at least three players per season. After signing a 5-man class in 2005, Duke's 2006 class was Gerald Henderson, Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas, and Brian Zoubek, and then three more in 2007 with Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, and Taylor King, followed by three more in 2008 with Elliot Williams, Miles Plumlee, and Olek Czyz.
None of these classes feel like bridges to the next big one. Conversely, none of these groups appears to have the same impact of a Killer B's (1998); Williams/Boozer/Dunleavy; or similar.
Looking back on that 2001 championship roster, what made that team so dangerous – and ultimately tough enough to last through the battles of March and beyond, was the sheer number of weapons. There were two National Players of the Year on the roster in Williams and Battier. Concentrate on those two and Duke could kill you in the post with Boozer. Shut those three down and you had a top five draft pick quality talent in Dunleavy and a now starting NBA point guard in Chris Duhon to score. Off the bench Duke brought Nate James, who had been a starter previously in his career. In the post there was Casey Sanders as well as Matt Christensen. There were virtually no weaknesses with that team. In order to beat that group the opponents needed to play at their best and, frankly, Duke needed to be a bit off- similar to this year's North Carolina team.
The most recent edition of the Blue Devils had three battle-tested and proven players on the roster as the year wore on in Singler, Henderson, and Jon Scheyer. The point guard position, which was so crucial for the team in the early season, didn't pan out, as scoring guard Nolan Smith's early season success waned on the heels of injuries and inconsistent performances, while senior Greg Paulus' effectiveness also slipped – relegating the three year starter to the second or third reserve status. The big-man situation also didn't resolve itself, with trio of Miles Plumlee, Brian Zoubek, and Lance Thomas showing flashes but not the consistency needed to propel Duke deep into March. The misses on such targets as Jon Brockman, Patrick Patterson, Greg Monroe, Blake Griffin, and Greg Echenique loomed large in that area.
A common cry on the various forums from Duke fans is that the Olympic team commitment over the last three years may have some how impacted recruitment. It was hoped that this was an investment that would pay later dividends, by having recruits see what Coach K could do with NBA talent and give him more credibility and overcome the negative press about his program. A whole slew of top recruits would be lining up at the doors after the USA took home the gold. Or so the theory went. But, that was never the intent. Krzyzewski's reasons for taking the reigns of Team USA had nothing to do with recruiting – although the exposure certainly didn't hurt. In reality, the Duke philosophy has been to select which kids to recruit, and then build a relationship with them. If there was any interference in recruiting, it would have to fall under one of these two categories – selecting the wrong kids, or not having the opportunity to build relationships with them. There were no "bad choices", just bad luck as the kids that were selected ultimately chose other schools, and Duke didn't have "Plan Bs" in place.
Reading recent quotes from the Team USA experience, there are some inferences that can be made about influences on Krzyzewski. One was that Coach K really enjoyed coaching Toronto's Chris Bosh. Early on in the roster formation, there was criticism that Dwight Howard was the only legitimate NBA center on the team. Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer play more power forward for their NBA teams. But Coach K's defensive philosophy for his center was to him front the opposing center to deny the entry pass, and have the quickness to be able to get around and do that, while if he can't do that in time, to have the length to challenge a shooter. The idea was to find somebody more like Christian Laettner than Elton Brand. To find someone like Mason Plumlee – as he did in the class of 2009.
The second quote was about the talent level in the program. I think that Coach K made an adjustment after 2004 when he lost two of his best young players, and couldn't replace them quick enough. The effect of this took a few years to manifest, but a few comments about the team not having the talent to compete against Villanova in the tournament this year indicates that bringing in more of the very top talent is going to be a priority. With this in mind, recruiting John Wall made perfect sense. Harrison Barnes is the a top priority in 2010, and another push for Brandon Knight would not be a surprise, along with Kyrie Irving and Ray McCallum – the top three point guards in the class of 2010.
Make no mistake. Part of the reason many Blue Devil supporters feel Duke has "slipped" is the emergence of North Carolina. When your chief rival rises from the dead to win two National Titles in five years it's hard not to notice. Leaving the Heels aside just for a moment, it's hard to point to another program who has sustained its high level over the years? Going through the recent national champions, Florida didn't make the tournament last year and other than the two championships the program has never been a national contender. 2003's champion, Syracuse, has struggled to get back to a national level contender since Carmello Anthony left. And Maryland is a perennial mid-level ACC team. Even Michigan State has had some down years of late.
Everything considered, there are two programs that you could argue for being in the same group with Duke -- Kansas and UCLA. The UCLA parallel is striking. After a run of success (three Final Fours), a lot was expected of the Bruins in 2009, but they struggled – mightily at times. When March rolled around, UCLA was a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament, and the first-round game against VCU came down to the last-second shot by Eric Maynor. In 2006, the shot went in and Duke went home. In 2009, it missed and UCLA survived, but then were shut down by a middle of the pack Big East team, like Duke was in 2007.
It's hard to argue the Tar Heels aren't ahead of the Blue Devils right now, how much is that by design and how much is it by chance? Has the North Carolina coaching staff made better decisions, or have they lucked out?
Exhibit one: Given a choice between a 6-10 athletic center who can handle the ball and is a great passer, rated by some as the best player in his class or a 6-8 less athletic center from the worst class of the decade, which one would most coaches choose? But Tyler Hansbrough was more valuable than Josh McRoberts in both of the years when Josh was in school, and infinitely more valuable after Josh left.
Exhibit two: Villanova should have beaten UNC in 2005 except for a controversial travel call. Wisconsin gave them a great scare. Michigan State was ahead of them at halftime. And Illinois lost their big man to foul trouble and clawed their way back to tie in the late stages. UNC was able to win all four games. Duke's 2004 and 2006 teams were every bit as strong, but UNC won their close calls and Duke didn't win theirs.
Exhibit three: Despite a recruiting strategy of going after lots of top players rather than Duke's more focused approach, and signing more NBA-type talent, the Tar Heels could have lost four starters to the NBA, as three under-classmen declared last summer without signing with an agent, while the fourth decided not to despite winning the NPOY. Of the three, one got in trouble with the law, which hurt his draft status. One hurt his ankle, which severely limited his pre-draft workouts. One hit a miserable shooting slump. Ultimately, all four returned to school. And to give credit where credit is due, they were a team that used to struggle against a zone defense that became deadly against a zone, a team that couldn't defend a three-point shot to a team that didn't allow many in the tournament, a team that could have easily lost four times in the 2005 tournament but won every tournament game easily in 2009. Sure, they stumbled and lost a couple of games in the season. So did Duke in 2001.
The big question for Duke fans centers around this latest ebb and flow of the rivalry and when the balance of power may shift back to the darker shade of blue. The effects of 5/8 rule is nearly over. The next great Duke big man might be a freshman this year. The next impact freshman star could sign with Duke in the fall. You used to look at the incoming big classes and think that they might challenge for a title when they were juniors. There is certainly a chance the prep class of 2009 could fit that mold. Or, if the dominos fall Duke's way, it could happen sooner. A lot depends on how the class of 2010 rounds out.