Duke basketball is a meritocracy whether you like it or not

Duke basketball Coach K (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Duke basketball Coach K (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

The Duke basketball program attracts some of the best players in the nation year after year; the pressure to perform is enormous, but it always has been, and if you can’t meet the expectations, the writing is already on the wall.

Just like Duke basketball, corporate entities run certain systems that they believe will set them up for success.

Usually, when promotions are meted out at other organizations, they are done so after someone has worked there for a while. Their years of service are rewarded in a way that is loyal to the loyalty given. After this threshold is crossed or that hurdle is overcome, benefits are conveyed that often kick in after a predetermined period of time.

There is something to be said for a system like this because the bonds they form, allowed to build over time, can be that much stronger and lasting. This kind of entity also promotes conformity to group ideals and deeper understandings of the reasons behind an organization and the values they possess.

The routine is streamlined. The training is more intensive. Emotional ties are that much tighter, and the nuances, which are seen over time, are realized in a clearer way.

There is an inherent problem in a structure like this, however. It’s not really fair. Now, we could parse the word “fair” and probably not see eye to eye on what this seemingly simple term means. Some would see gaining advantages and increasingly beneficial benefits, based on years of investment and effort, as what is absolutely just and right.

I would argue that an entity like this, while thought of as loyal, principled, and worthy of respect, is also tying one hand behind its back.

These types of systems can be closed and slow to integrate the changes necessary for overall vitality and continued evolution of the structure. They can be resistant to new ideas, new talent, and new innovations because they rely on the premise that longevity and experience are more advantageous traits. These types of formations can become complacent and lethargic to the dynamic environments they operate in.

Duke basketball is not one of these organizations. Duke basketball and its CEO, Mike Krzyzewski, represent the most forward-thinking and adaptable program in college hoops.

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I’ll also give some props in this department to West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, who has adopted Press Virginia and dropped it faster than the T-shirts could be printed, and Kansas’ Bill Self, a highly skilled and adaptive basketball coach — with emphasis on “basketball coach” and not a trustworthy leader of a historic program.

Still, no coach has less of a defining system of play, outside of winning and winning at the highest level, than Coach K. His adaptability to his players, to the opposition, to rule changes, and to trend changes has proven successful in every phase of Duke’s constant evolution. The Blue Devils are such an advanced organism that they can counter-evolve and send Vernon Carey Jr., a perimeter-playing high school big man as current trends dictate, into the high post with All-American results.

This was after a season where Duke used its three devastating forwards in ball-screen action and exploited one-on-one mismatches. The No. 3 recruit in the country, Cam Reddish, who many believe has the best long-term upside of any on that special team, was relegated to the third option. This was mostly due to his laid-back demeanor, the presence of two alpha dogs, and not for a lack of talent.

The 2015 Duke basketball title was won in part with a late commitment to Justise Winslow playing the small-ball four and a tweak in defensive execution. The 2009-10 Duke basketball team had Jon Scheyer, a shooting guard, run the point on his way to All-American honors; those Blue Devils played through the wings, with invaluable efforts from Brian Zoubek, on the way to their championship. The Booze-Battier-Dunleavy-JWill 2000-01 Duke basketball team was its own animal altogether.

ALSO READ: The 100 greatest Blue Devils under Coach K

To be so successful over the years, in so many different eras, with so many iterations of Duke basketball, the system can’t afford to only look to experience, loyalty, or time-based preferences for promotion. If this is your idea of fair, then you should stop reading the article (DON’T STOP READING THIS ARTICLE). This concept of fairness and Duke do not exist in the same world, but that is why the Blue Devils are so good.

Duke basketball is a meritocracy. It always has been and always will be.

Go all the way back to Coach K’s early days. Didn’t Duke take the ball out of Johnny Dawkins‘ hands, who started at point guard himself as a freshman, and give it to another freshman point guard in Tommy Amaker the next year? Wasn’t this the time when Duke basketball really took off?

In fact, before Amaker became the final piece to Duke’s title-game puzzle, Coach K was committed to playing a group of freshmen who had to contend with Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Len Bias, Mark Price, and Brad Daugherty in the ACC. Those are just the Hall of Famers, mind you.

Coaches played juniors and seniors back then, and maybe an exceptional freshman if it was warranted. They didn’t throw four or five freshmen out at a time. But at Duke, talent plays just as money talks; it has no bearing whether it’s young or old.

Even before the one-and-done era, Coach K had almost patented the freshman point guard star as Bobby Hurley, Jason Williams, and even Kyrie Irving, who played before the phrase became what it is today, followed in Dawkins’ and Amaker’s footsteps. This has held true across positions and not just point guard.

We have also seen the flip side, where highly-rated recruits like Chase Jeter, Marques Bolden, and even Trevon Duval struggled to make the hoped-for impact in positions of need and failed to even crack the starting lineups in some instances.

We have seen this past Duke basketball season three-stars Jordan Goldwire and Jack White play and average more minutes than the top 75 recruits Alex O’Connell, Javin DeLaurier, and Joey Baker. Duke is not for the faint of heart, and there is always a forward-looking eye to how recruits will stack up years into the future. There is good reasoning for this as well, and even GOAT coaches can be caught off guard.

ALSO READ: Blue Devils could afford a mass exodus right now

We all remember Tyus Jones‘ spectacular run to Most Outstanding Player at the 2015 NCAA Championship. Unfortunately for Duke basketball fans, this run also led him out of town and into the first round of the NBA Draft.

Duke was able to scramble and reclassify Derryck Thornton, but when he transferred away, the program had no true point guard for the three good teams that ensued, and each saw its title hopes diminish somewhat because of it. Grayson Allen filled in admirably, but Duke never had anyone to really fill the role that he was vacating to run the offense.

I always found it odd that people questioned if Duke forced Thornton out when I believe having him run point as a junior on the 2018 team with Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., and Gary Trent Jr. could very well have resulted in title No. 6.

Coach K isn’t going to scramble like that again, at least I hope not, as he has given us no indication that this will be the case. The Duke basketball coaches are shrewd in their approaches to recruits and must walk a delicate line.

While some like Kentucky head coach John Calipari foster a hyper-competitive environment where the only rule is survival of the fittest, Coach K plays it more as a chess match. He too creates a super-competitive environment, but he tries to recruit in a selective process that provides the necessary fire while also giving confidence that you aren’t recruited over.

The 73-year-old Coach K, who will enter his 41st season as Duke basketball head coach, knows there are a variety of spaces and roles to fill. He seems to be getting back to being more selective by position. With one-and-done ending in the next few years, next season’s returnees and incoming recruits appear to be spread out with backups at all positions except center.

ALSO READ: The top five candidates to succeed Coach K

Don’t get me wrong, no matter what was said to the Carter family, if Bagley wants in on your program, your program is gonna take him without ever thinking twice. And it should.

I’ve always thought that Coach K went against his better instincts, though, and could have split and paired Bagley and Carter with either Bolden or DeLaurier. In this scenario, Marvin and Wendell would each have known they were the showpieces and had a defensive center on the court so they could play full time at power forward. Not starting and having their individual minutes cut were probably the two biggest impediments to this.

Plus, Coach K wanted to keep his word. Since both were taken within the top seven picks of the ensuing NBA Draft, I think it’s safe to say he did.

According to the Twitter account named Duke Recruiting, Duke is one of the most selective programs in offering recruits with an average of only seven misses per year over the last three years. We also looked at the number of recruits that ranked between 40 and 100 during the last three seasons and noted that Cole Swider, Jermaine Samuels, and Tremont Waters were a few of the only ones to decline a Duke basketball offer.

When competing with wave after wave of five-star recruits gunning for the NBA and coming for your playing time, off nights better be few and far between. But they are sucked in just like we are as fans, and we aren’t even given the royal treatment like Duke recruits.

When you are one of the chosen few to receive a Blue Devil invitation, you may jump at the chance for all it can offer. But expectations come with that. You may be expected to carry the team if you are a top recruit. You may be expected to be a role player, and Coach K realizes the importance of glue guys and non-stars as well. The 40-100 guys may not, though, after being the man for their high school squads in a lot of instances.

We as Duke basketball fans also have a lot to do with these expectations. We are willing to sacrifice ACC regular-season crowns for the greater good. With uber-talented, uber-young teams, growing pains are as much a necessity of life as making sure they are few and far between as well. We want wins. We want them now. And while we love our Dukies like few in college basketball, the system dictates we love who is doing it for us lately.

ALSO READ: The five greatest Duke tournament games to rewatch

Like the fans in the arenas of ancient Rome, we scream and cheer for our heroes. They win and wow us over with their fantastic displays until they don’t. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the lion (injury) until it is disemboweling and eating you. Sometimes, you can see the younger, stronger, and better gladiator coming right at you, but are powerless to stop the sword from hitting home.

We will cheer regardless because we love the wins, the successes, and can get as caught up in the brilliance of those banners hanging down from those hallowed rafters as the players do; and be as willfully ignorant of all those broken dreams that get swept under the Cameron Indoor Stadium bleachers whether it’s fair or not.

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