It comes with success. Over the years as the victories piled up and the trophy case expanded, Mike Krzyzewski has been able to convince more and more elite players to come to Duke to ply their trade. Cameron Indoor Stadium has become one of the premier stages in the nation were many the best in college basketball come to showcase their talents in front of the Crazies and, on most nights, a national television audience. It has become almost commonplace for five to six McDonald's High School All-Americans to call Cameron home at any given time.
As the talent pool has swelled, however, Krzyzewski's bench has tended to contract. In the early 'K' years, the Duke bench was often nine to ten men deep. In recent years, however, no matter the preseason gushing about the upcoming team's depth being "greater than in year's past", Coach 'K' always seems to settle in on a rotation that routinely goes no deeper than seven to eight players.
Whether the result of injuries, transfers, or early departures for the NBA, the long bench just never seems to come to fruition. The seven to eight man "inner circle" just seems to be a number that he trusts and is comfortable with as each season wears on and games are on the line. The reality is that, even among the elite players that come to Durham, some are always more elite than others and earn their mentor's trust in crunch time. Duke fans should be thankful. Former Georgia Teach coach Bobby Cremins used to recruit five elite players and then suited up students pulled from the bleachers to give his stars a few seconds of blow each game -- or at least it seemed that way.
By in large, 'K' seems to favor a rotation with four guards, one of whom is a true point and one who can slide over into that role on a short term basis when needed. Inside, a three-man post exchange seems to suit him, preferably with at least two of three having a little to offer away from the basket -- the more the better, of course. Finally, when he can find one, he loves having a small forward with game enough for the three-ball and size enough to move inside to defend a post player, a Singler or Battier type player. The flexibility to go big or small as the game situation dictates seems his preference.
Once again, the preseason buzz is that this is one of Duke's deepest team's ever. The difference in this year's hype is that it may well be true.
Duke returns five givens from last year's 32-5 ACC Tournament Champion and Sweet Sixteen team. Junior shooting sensations Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins return in the backcourt. In the frontcourt, juniors Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee and lone senior Miles Plumlee, all 6' 10" or a fraction more, return to provide solid depth and experience. This group serves as the nucleus of this year's rotation.
Also, returning and competing for playing time are sophomores Tyler Thornton, a point guard, and Josh Hairston, who will try to earn minutes around the basket. Their prospects for playing time are significantly more tenuous and nebulous.
Added to this group is highly touted 2011 recruiting class, ranked No. 2 in the nation by all of the major recruiting services. Originally a four man class, this group was augmented in early summer when 2012 verbal commit Alex Murphy decided, a la Dawkins, to graduate early and enter Duke a year ahead of schedule.
In the interests of being realistic and saving a fluff slide, let's be up front here and acknowledge that freshman Austin Rivers gets the sixth slot in the rotation and is likely in the top five. Rivers is a five-star guard recruit who was arguably the No. 1 prep player in the land last year.
Rivers, like former Duke guard Gerald Henderson and current Dukie Seth Curry is an NBA legacy, being the son of former NBA point guard and current coach of the Boston Celtics, Doc Rivers. Rivers arrives at Duke a prodigious prep scorer with a complete and advanced skill set. that he will play a major on this year's squad is a foregone conclusion.
So with a six-man contingent already set, which of the other six scholarship players will be able gain Krzyzweski's attention and confidence and get the soon-to-be winning-est men's basketball coach to extend his vision down the bench beyond the sixth chair. And will enough of them wow 'K' for Duke to truly have the "deep wood" (acknowledging, of course, that modern "benches" are not in fact benches nor made of wood for that matter, but you get the idea) that is so often talked about during the preseason.
Let's take a look in order of most likely to least likely to extend Duke's bench.