After the Zion/RJ Barrett one-and-done team was eliminated from the Elite Eight, Duke went with an old-fashioned approach in 2019-20, building around veterans and players who would be around awhile.
“I don’t even know what old-fashioned means anymore,” coach Mike Krzyzewski groused.
The built-to-last Blue Devils saw a pair of freshmen go one-and-done, along with sophomore point guard Tre Jones, leaving Krzyzewski another rebuilding job after all.
The resulting roster isn’t old-school or new jack. The 2020-21 Blue Devils look more avant-garde, with a mixture of experience levels rarely seen in the sport, especially on a national title contender.
This year, Duke has a total of seven newcomers — six freshmen and a graduate transfer. The Blue Devils have one recruited senior — longtime backup point guard Jordan Goldwire — and one junior — Joey Baker, who sat most of his freshmen year, expecting to redshirt, before getting a cup of coffee in a few games.
So, odd as it may seem, Duke will be leaning heavily on its sophomore leaders this season.
Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore Jr. both returned to Duke after what were considered subpar freshman seasons.
They certainly didn’t put up Zion or Barrett-type numbers, or even Vernon Carey statistics, but both Hurt and Moore proved they were solid contributors.
“Look at Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore,” Duke assistant Chris Carrawell, who averaged 5.5 points as a freshman and won ACC Player of the Year as a senior, said. “In the one-and-done era, a lot of people would think they had bad years, so to speak. For a freshman to play those type of minutes and those averages — in my day, coming back for sophomore year, they’d have been on covers of magazines. I mean, really. It’s just different now.”
The pair combined for 17.1 points per game as freshmen, along with eight rebounds. Moore had 1.9 assists per game, while Hurt hit threes at a near 40% rate.
Both have also taken major steps forward in the offseason.
The quarantine was good to Hurt. He found a gym and was able to work out regularly, adding 20 pounds of muscle to his frame.
“It’s going to impact a big part of my game,” he said. “The knock on me was I was a little lighter guarding the four. People would try to take advantage of me down low. This year, especially on defense but also on offense, attacking it, being strong with the ball, taking contact and finishing over taller defenders.”
Hurt will be able to post up in the paint this season and also take bigger defenders outside, giving Coach K a true stretch four. He also plans to score on the drive more this season, as defenders fly out on his outside shot.
Moore’s biggest improvement is his confidence level.
“There would be times in games last year when he was open and he wouldn’t shoot the ball, and you can hear bench and some fans yelling, ‘Shoot! Shoot!’ And he would pass up open shots,” Carrawell said. “I think a year older, working on his game all summer and then you come back. You’re older. You’re more confident. He’s playing with extreme confidence now for us.”
Goldwire, a pit-bull defender and improving offensive player, is expected to play a bigger role this season as the lone scholarship senior, and Baker provides a second deadly shooting threat to complement Hurt.
Then there are the newcomers. Patrick Tape arrives with an Ivy League degree from Columbia and should provide a rebounding presence in the paint. He’ll be joined there by Mark Williams, who has earned rave reviews as a rim protector and put-back dunker.
Henry Coleman completes Duke’s post presence and has earned praise for his aggressive attitude and toughness.
Assistant Nate James, known as the team’s enforcer in his playing days, is ready to pass on his “Dog Pound” bone to Coleman after seeing him in the preseason.
“He plays with amazing energy. He’s extremely tough,” James said. “Obviously, he has the physical makeup to bring that type of power, strength, athleticism to the game, which he’s done each and every practice. Whatever team he’s been on, he’s given them a jolt. He’s the Energizer Bunny.”
Duke also adds wing players Jalen Johnson, who earned preseason first-team ACC and promises to be a scorer and surprisingly good passer, and Jaemyn Brakefield, also mentioned by James as a potential “team badass.”
Then there are a pair of guards in point Jeremy Roach and combination guard DJ Steward, who could challenge Hurt and Baker for best outside shooter on the team.
In addition to the oddly aged roster, Duke looks likely to play a deep rotation — something new for the playing-time stingy Coach K — and will be playing without its traditional home-court advantage thanks to the pandemic.
Still, the Blue Devils are expected to contend for the league title and be on a short list for national title contenders.
Some things never seem to change.