It's Recruiting, Stupid


It’s been four days and I can finally allow myself back onto my own site. After a blowout defeat by Villanova, I needed to take a break, sit back, relax and let results of that game and this season sink in. Now I’m fresh and ready to look back at what we saw and what we can expect in the future.

On the morning of black Friday, the biggest question being asked was a simple one; was Duke a fraud? The answer is NO. To be a fraud, you had to not achieve what everyone thought you would achieve? Almost all experts predicted Duke to lose to Villanova. If you had Duke going to the Final Four in your bracket, then you’re an idiot. The Wildcats really were that much better. Just ask Pittsburgh.

Duke won 30 games this season, playing the toughest schedule in all of basketball and won the ACC tournament. Not bad. However, everyone knew that when it came time to face elite teams, the Devils could be stopped. Everyone keeps talking about how this is the fifth year in a row where Duke has lost to a lower seed, but let’s get serious people…a two seed losing to a three seed is not an upset. Duke was a good team, not a great team.

Post-game, Coach K was blunt about what the problem was. Duke was playing 5 on 3 basketball. The Devils couldn’t compete at this level without a post-presence and a athletic point guard, who can get into the lane. All across the World Wide Web, everyone had an opinion. Coach K won’t go after one-and-done players. Coach was too busy with the Olympic team. Coach is too stubborn relying on the three-point shot. It’s the same story for the past five years. However, none of this is (completely) true. The reality is….first, Coach K has never said he won’t recruit one-and-done players. Never. He’s said he doesn’t support the rule, but the Duke coaching staff has gone after (and failed to get) plenty of the elite high school players, including a handful of one-and-done players; many who were big men.

Secondly, Duke relies on three-point shooting because that’s what they’ve landed in recruiting. We’ve talked about it plenty of times on this site. Duke went after the 3rd ranked PF, Patrick Patterson. He was a possible one-and-done (before he got hurt his freshman year). He picked Kentucky. Duke went after the #1 ranked PF, Greg Monroe, but he picked Georgetown. Hell, Duke went after big-man (11th ranked PF) Gregory Echenique, who ended up picking Rutgers over Duke. Any of these three would have made a significant difference in the paint for the Devils this season.

This is what it comes down to. RECRUITING. If you want a reason for Duke’s struggles (by the way, it’s a little disturbing we use the word ‘struggle’ for a 30-win team, but that’s Duke for you) just take a look at this season’s senior class; Greg Paulus, Martynas Pocius and David McClure. All three were huge disappointments if you judge them based on their high school rankings (for the purpose of this article, we’ll use Rivals rankings). Paulus was the #1 rated point guard coming out of college. Pocius was the 16th rated shooting guard and McClure (was the 13th rated small forward). All three ended their final seasons as bench players, with only McClure playing important minutes late in games. While you can’t overestimate McClure’s heart and guts on the court, all three have to be considered major disappointments. Pocius could never get healthy or figure out the concept of defending, while Paulus (expected to be the next Bobby Hurley), got worse and worse after a decent freshman campaign. Again, you can’t question his heart either, but he just didn’t have the talent to play at this level. It was sort of depressing to watch all three of them playing mop up duty at the end of the Villanova blowout.

Sadly, disappointing recruiting results have become the common theme for the 21st Century Blue Devils. Don’t get me wrong, every team has top-notch recruits that don’t pan out. Duke is no exception, but since 2002, it’s been a little bit too common.

When a team wraps up a recruitment class, in all honesty, you’re really hoping to land one star, one starter and one solid bench player. If you do better than this, you’re going to be a title contender. Now looking back at Duke’s recruiting, their classes are ranked at or near the top every year, but the recruiting results have not lived up the recruiting rankings.

DUKE BLUE DEVILS’ RECRUITING RANKINGS SINCE 2005 (Rivals only goes back to ’05):
2005 – Ranked 2nd
2006 – Ranked 4th
2007 – Ranked 6th
2008 – Ranked 13th
2009 – Ranked 9th

While the rankings have fallen every year, when your worse year is 13th, your team should be pretty damn good. However, when you dig deeper, you see what’s gone wrong.

2002 – (PG-6) Sean Dockery, (SG-2) J.J. Redick, (SF-NR) Lee Melchionni, (PF-6) Shavlik Randolph, (PF-3) Sheldon Williams, (C-5) Mike Thompson.
With Duke expecting to lose Jason Williams, Boozer and Dunleavy, the Devils went out and grabbed six players. Looking at those six, do you think Coach K wasn’t looking for size? He landed the 3rd and 6th best power forwards and the 5th best Center. While Redick and Williams became one of the best inside-out duos in the country, Thompson played two seasons for Duke before transferring to Northwestern, where he could be found stuck on the bench more often than not. Randolph struggled with injuries in his short Duke career, but his play off the bench was a big reason Duke made it to the final four in 2004. However, like William Avery before him and Josh McRoberts after him, he thought he was more talented than he was, and bolted to the NBA.

In the end, the 2002 class was a successful one. By their senior season, three were starting, two were stars (Redick and Williams) and even Melchionni could hit some threes from the bench. However, unless your Michigan’s fave five, one solid season’s of recruitment doesn’t make you elite team.

2003 – (SF-1) Luol Deng
After landing six players the year before, Duke only grabbed one in ’03, but he was a good one. In fact, he was the best player on this final four team. Unfortunately, Luol was a one-hit wonder, leaving for the NBA (along with Randolph) after his freshman campaign. If he would have stayed for at least two more years, who knows what could have been.

Note: Duke was one of three schools that Lebron James had on his short list, but no serious person can think that he would have ever played with the Devils.

2004 – (PG-1) Shaun Livingston, (SF-13) David McClure, (SG-5) DeMarcus Nelson
For the second straight year, Duke landed the #1 player at a position, but unlike Deng (who gave Duke at least one year), Livingston skipped college all together. The loss of Livingston hurt. First, when Shaun made his decision, it was too late for Duke to fill the scholarship. It was the equivalent of a superstar being on your roster and not playing a single minute. Second, he could have been the difference. Remember, Duke went to the Sweet 16 riding just Redick and Williams that season. Just imagine what they could have done with a starting lineup of Livingston, Reddick, Deng, Williams and Randolph (the smallest player would have been 6’4 Redick).

The other two players were of course McClure and Nelson. Both finished their careers at Duke, but both constantly suffered through nagging injuries throughout their years on campus. Only Nelson was able to get through it and be a star by the time he was a senior.

2005 – (SG-16) Martynas Pocius, (C-3) Eric Boatend, (PF-20) Jamal Boykin, (PF-1) Josh McRoberts, (PG-1) Greg Paulus.
After two years of not landing a big man, the Duke coaching staff brought in two power forwards (including the top rated McRoberts) and the 3rd rated Center (Boateng). However, if you really want to see why Duke struggled THIS year to advance to the final four, you have to point the finger at this class. This was suppose to be Duke’s ’08-’09 senior season. Of the five, NONE, finished their final year at Duke as a starter. In fact, all three big men failed to make it to their junior years. McRoberts was a decent player, but was never comfortable as the go-to guy, so he jumped (too early) to the NBA, Boateng played one season, before leaving for Arizona State, where he averaged under two points a game this past season for the Sun Devils. Like Boateng, Boykin played one season and left. He went to California and started this season, averaged about nine points and six rebounds per game.

This season’s results can be traced back to this recruiting class. This was the #2 ranked class, with two guys ranked #1 at their position, as well as the #3 center. There is no other word to use for this class but…FLOP. Just look at the other teams…the #1 rated class that year? Kansas, who won the championship last season. Carolina? The 4th best class, back in the final four again. Louisville, a senior class that made it to the Elite Eight, was 5th.

Now don’t get me wrong, Duke’s class wasn’t the only flop…Oklahoma State was ranked 3rd, but they fell in the second round this year. Mississippi State, LSU, Arizona and Alabama were all in the top ten, but never became elite teams. Hell, NC State was 11th. However, when the Duke Blue Devils bring in five guys, they can’t go 0-5 and expect to compete with the elites.

2006 – (PF-4) Lance Thomas, (SF-5) Gerald Henderson, (C-7) Brian Zoubek, (SG-3) Jon Scheyer.
In the scheme of things, the ’06 class was a pretty decent one. You got one star (Henderson), one starter (Scheyer) and two bench players (Zoubek or Thomas). The problem is, because so many players have not panned out, too much has been asked of this class. They are not the 1998 class (Brand, Battier, Avery) or the 2000 class (Williams, Boozer and Dunleavy). These two classes could come in as freshman and win 25 games. The biggest problem (as we all already know is, because so many big men left early or transferred out, players like Zoubek, Thomas and McClure were asked to fill a void they couldn’t fill. Again, don’t get me wrong, I can never question these players’ hearts, but how the hell was Lance Thomas rated the 4th best power forward? Zoubek the 7th best center? Both would be fine bench players, but the problem is, one or the other has to start.

2007 (SF-1) Kyle Singler, (SF-15) Taylor King, (SG-7) Nolan Smith
While Singler has been better than advertised, Smith will be nothing more than a solid bench player, while King transferred out like so many other Duke big men.

2008 (PF-14) Miles Plumlee, (SG-4) Elliot Williams, (PF-30) Olek Czyz
While the ’07 class will always have Singler, the ’08 will not. Williams will be a good player, in fact, he’ll be similar to DeMarcus Nelson, probably better, as long as he continues to develop. However, I just don’t get Czyz. I’m sure he’s a great kid (we know he has plenty of hop and excitement), but is he really ever going to get solid playing time? Ever? What will he be able to deliver to this team? Plumlee has the size to one day be a solid post player off the bench, but not Olek. It’s a wasted pick and the Blue Devils are not suppose to throw away offers.

When you look at this year’s Final Four clubs you see one common thread, upperclassmen (junior and seniors) leading their teams. Now Look back at the last seven classes of Duke and what do you have? If we can assume Elliot Williams will start his final two years, Miles will be a contributing bench player and Czyz won’t be, we have…
– 4 stars
– 9 starters (including the four star players).
– 6 bench players who contributed
– 2 bench players who did not contribute
– 4 transfers
– 3 left early for the NBA
– 1 never made it to campus.

Nine out 24 players recruited made ZERO impact for the Duke Blue Devils in their junior or senior years. That’s huge. Only four solid stars (Redick, Sheldon, Henderson and Singler). Of the nine who did not make it to their junior year, six of them were either power forwards or centers. This is bad. Add these numbers of disappointing recruits with the players who didn’t pick Duke (Patterson, Monroe, etc.), you can see the fall off.

Now having said ALL THAT, when we say ‘fall off’ we’re still talking about a 30 win team, who made it to the Sweet 16. What it all means is, Duke is really only a player or two away from being an elite program. So what does the future hold?

What we do know right now is that Duke does have two highly touted freshman coming in, both big men; (PF-3) Ryan Kelly, (PF-6) Mason Plumlee. Both, ironically, are from the state of North Carolina. Both are Big men, 6’10 or bigger, both are stars, Kelly was the top player in NC, while both are McDonald’s All-Americans (note: we’re skeptical of players being named McDonald’s All-Americans. Since most of these kids pick their schools prior to their senior seasons, we believe because they’re going to Duke, it influences who gets picked for McDonald status).

While I am excited about both these players, if you’ve studied Duke’s recruiting over the years, you have to honestly say, you just don’t know. Like The Big Lead asks, are these two more Singler/Laettner or Newtown/Zoubek? Right now, I’ll settle for anything in the middle.

Having said that, Duke is now going hard after John Wall. He’s the top rated high school player, who just so happens to be a athletic point guard. He’s a stud, but he’ll only be in college for one year. He’s meeting with Coach K this Sunday, so we’ll see, but in reality, he’ll probably end up at the one-and-done factory, Memphis Tigers, who have already landed the #2 and #3 rated high school players (both are one-and-done too).

If Coach K can somehow convince Wall to come to Duke (he does live in Raleigh, N.C. and he has indicated his mother would like him to stay local), he could be the difference maker, along with Kelly and Plumlee.

Now if Wall doesn’t pick Duke, not all is lost. Duke has two other point guards on their list, Eric Bledsoe (Alabama) and Darius Smith (from Chicago). Both are quick, athletic point guards, who are waiting to see what happens at Duke. Both have said they would love to play for the Blue Devils. While Bledsoe is probably the more talented of the two, it’s not a given that he could qualify for the University. While neither is quite John Wall, both could start for Duke next season at the point.

The other big question is Gerald Henderson. While Singler has already stated that he’s coming back next year, Henderson is a different story. He’s a junior so it just makes sense for him to at least declare for the draft, so he can go workout with other top talent for NBA scouts. He’s projected to be a mid-to-late first rounder. Now while I believe Henderson will be a solid pro, he’s only 6’4, so he’s going to be a shooting guard. If so, he’s going to need to improve his long-range shooting even more and he’s going to need to work on going left. As a Duke fan, I want him to do what is best for him and if going pro is it, I’ll be cheering for him. However, I wouldn’t mind him coming back for one more year to develop into a lottery pick next season.

For 2010, some good news came in today, as Seth Curry (Stephen’s little brother) will be transferring to the Devils. He was the highest scoring freshman (20ppg) for Liberty this year. However, even if Curry didn’t show up, Duke’s ’10 class is looking solid. The Blue Devils have already offered scholarships to seven high profile players, including #1 rated PG Brandon Knight, #1 rated SF Harrison Barnes, and #2 C Josh Smith. They have also already received commitments from (SG-6) Andre Dawkins (a Henderson-clone), (PF-5) Josh Hairston, (PG-9) Tyler Thornton. If we can assume they can land one more of their hopefuls, Duke should have a top-three class in 2010.

To sum up, the sky is still not falling and I’ll let the folks over at AM850 ‘The Blog’ wrap up it for us:

"From my point of view, it simply shows Coach K’s program is a model of consistency and just about every other school in the country would be tickled with the same results. Unfortunately Duke is like Tiger Woods — their success can’t be compared to others. And don’t get it twisted and blame media pressure, Duke set its own standard last decade. Because of that, their recent trend of shallow runs in the NCAA Tournament is being scrutinized."

Just remember, it could be worse. You could be a Maryland fan.