The 2009-10 Blue Devils won the ACC regular season, the ACC tournament and the national championship. Since then, Duke hasn’t won much of anything.
So what changed? The hyphenated answer to that question is: one-and-done.
The one-and-done rule was codified into basketball law in 2005. When the NBA required players entering the draft be 19 years old or to have completed their freshman year of college, the DNA of college basketball mutated. For a while the new one-and-done nature of the sport existed as just a mild annoyance. Then programs began to adapt to the new system.
In the Darwinian race to become the new and dominant species, John Calipari outpaced everyone with blinding speed. Interestingly, Duke’s championship in 2009-10 was also John Calipari’s first year at Kentucky.
After taking over for Billy Gillispie, Calipari immediately attracted top talent to Kentucky. In his first year, the Wildcats went 35-3 and reached the Elite Eight. That impressive turnaround from the previous season was accomplished thanks to freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe.
All three of those players—along with Patrick Patterson, who was a junior—bolted for the NBA when the season closed. The prevailing wisdom was that this dependency on one-and-done players would make it difficult to sustain success year to year and wouldn’t net a national championship due to inexperience.
Kentucky’s next two seasons put those notions to rest. With almost entirely new teams each year, Calipari went to the Final Four in 2010-11 and won the title in 2011-12. What had been established was a new paradigm for basketball programs to exist within. In order to stay competitive, the top schools in the country had to compete for the elite high school prospects even if those players would likely only be around for one season.
Mike Krzyzewski had avoided one-and-done players for a long time. The season after the championship, however, saw Duke get its first transient star.
Kyrie Irving’s college career wasn’t a great way for the Blue Devils to enter into the one-and-done era. Eight games into the season Irving got injured. He returned for three NCAA tournament games, but his presence threw off the chemistry of a team that had adjusted to his absence. Duke ended the season by getting blown out in the Sweet 16.
The following year Duke welcomed Austin Rivers. While talented, Rivers was a ball-stopper on offense and played defense with the enthusiasm of a child going to the dentist. That season ended with no titles to speak of and an embarrassing first-round NCAA loss to Lehigh.
This season, Duke once again had a marquee freshman, Jabari Parker—another player that was likely only going to spend one season on the court for the Blue Devils. Yet in a bout of unwelcome deja vu, the team's multitude of talent yielded no titles and culminated in another opening-round NCAA loss.
The fact of the matter is: Duke hasn’t had success with one-and-done players. That isn’t to say that Duke fans haven’t appreciated these players, but you don’t get to hang a fifth championship banner based on appreciation.
Art can be appreciated and enjoyed, but art isn’t functional. Parker, Rivers and Irving played like the basketball court was their canvass, but none of them played in a Final Four.
In actuality, Duke’s best season since the championship was 2012-13. That year Duke was led by Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. All three of those players were seniors. That season the only freshman that saw substantial minutes and played every game was Rasheed Sulaimon. Despite the lack of star power, that team made it to the Elite Eight and lost to the eventual champions.
Similarly, the 2010-11 team won the ACC tournament sans Irving. That roster revolved around two seniors and a crop of underclassmen that, with the exception of Irving, all played four years at Duke.
The takeaway from this recap of recent history for Duke basketball is slightly maddening. Duke won the title in 2009-10 with a team of upperclassmen who were constantly criticized for not being athletic enough. Instead of emulating the blueprint of that title-winning team, the Blue Devils have opted to engage in the recruiting arms race.
Unfortunately, that strategy has resulted in two mushroom-cloud losses to Lehigh and Mercer and a nuclear winter of zero conference regular-season titles and just one conference tournament win that happened with the country’s top recruit sitting on the bench.
Adapt or die is the way of the world. Change is inevitable. Duke, however, has changed into something unfamiliar and unwieldy. What’s the point of having the best coach in the country if players only receive his mentorship for one year?
It’s not like Duke needs to field a team of five white guys in short shorts and sporting crew cuts. It’s just that Duke doesn’t need to blindly charge into the unknown future like some technology sycophant who implicitly trusts any CEO in a turtleneck. Calipari might be preaching the new religion of one-and-done factories, but given Duke’s history, high standards and coaching staff, the Blue Devils don’t need to convert.
Duke doesn’t have to fear the future of basketball and the increasing importance of one-and-done players. Likewise, Duke doesn’t have to slavishly follow a format for success that Calipari came up with a mere five years ago and only had it pay off with a championship once.
If the 2009-10 championship team proved anything, it’s that the most talented team doesn’t always win. Lehigh and Mercer have reinforced that message. So maybe it’s time to stop pursuing talent and start pursuing players that fit Coach K’s tried-and-true system and who will take ownership of the program for a full four years.
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