It's never too early to look at what's to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and others expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Duke Blue Devils.
If we had access to the DeLorean or the TARDIS or any other fictional time-machine vehicle of choice and used it to travel back to October, boy, could we blow some people's minds. If we limited our prophesies to college basketball alone, few things would sound more ridiculous than the story of the 2016-17 Blue Devils.
What if you told someone last October that:
(A) Senior forward Amile Jefferson would be healthy pretty much all year, (B) freshman star Jayson Tatum would end the season as one of the most imposing outside-in frontcourt matchups in college hoops, and (C) sophomore guard Luke Kennard would lead his team in minutes and points, would take a quarter of his team's available field goals and would post All-American-level 52.5/43.8/85.6 shooting splits.
You'd have assumed Duke would win the national title.
Such was the fanfare that greeted the Blue Devils in October, and rightfully so. Rosters with this much highly ranked incoming talent and this many experienced, quality veteran players don't come along often. When they do, they're almost always national title contenders. No roster returning 40 percent of its possession-minutes from the previous season and adding a freshman class that rates out at 25 recruiting points or better based on Drew Cannon's curve has ever failed to advance to the Elite Eight. Before the year, historical precedent told us that Duke's baseline was to be one game away from the Final Four. Therein lie the blown minds. Throw in all of the above -- particularly Kennard's remarkable offensive season -- alongside preseason player of the year Grayson Allen, legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, and No. 1 freshman Harry Giles, and come on: At the very least, this team had to get to Phoenix.
You know what happened next. Allen was banged up and suspended for tripping his third opponent in a calendar year. Giles' two high school ACL tears prevented him from getting truly comfortable on the floor. Krzyzewski himself was sidelined by back surgery. The Blue Devils spent four months veering between (relative) disaster and "hey, they're figuring it out!" all the way up to March, when they won four games in four days in an ACC tournament title run, then ended their season in a second-round loss to No. 7-seed South Carolina.
It was an unwieldy, disappointing and, above all, unpredictable season for Duke -- the kind that reminds you there are no givens in college basketball, even when every piece of evidence suggests otherwise.
Safe to say, we "know" far less about the next edition of Duke's basketball team.
Chief among the uncertainties is Allen's future. The guard's much-criticized tripping incident against Elon tended to overshadow a regression from his brilliant sophomore form, largely due to lingering injuries that bothered him all season. Still, Allen showed enough flashes that he might yet end up selected in the NBA draft's first round. Save for a comical choice of headwear, Allen's offseason has been quiet.
Regardless of that decision, Duke already has an immense amount of turnover for which to factor. Tatum, Giles and Kennard are early draft entrants, while Jefferson and stalwart senior guard Matt Jones (the ultimate glue guy, and a key unsung piece in Duke's 2014-15 national title) have graduated. Sophomore center Chase Jeter, the No. 11 prospect in the Ben Simmons/Brandon Ingram 2015 class, will transfer after two seasons spent mostly on the bench.
Even with Giles and Tatum gone, Duke's lauded 2016 recruiting class could still pay long-term dividends. Marques Bolden (who played sparingly after an early-season injury) and Frank Jackson (who showed real promise off the bench, despite criticism for not being a "true" point guard, which is always kind of strange) could have big sophomore campaigns in much larger roles. Former four-star prospect Javin DeLaurier now has a chance to consistently get on the floor. Meanwhile, associate head coach Jeff Capel and his staff continue to recruit like crazy: The 2017 newcomers already consist of forward Wendell Carter and guard Gary Trent Jr., the Nos. 3 and 8 overall prospects in the class, with No. 7, wing Kevin Knox, still very much in the picture.
How good are these freshmen? How quickly will they blend? How much better will Bolden and Jackson be? Will Allen return? Will he be healthy? Will he dominate in the way we expected a year ago -- in the way Kennard did so often as he carried the Blue Devils' offense all season?
Even the knowns come with uncertainty, and there is far more of the former than the latter. Last October, we looked at a verifiably loaded, historically ordained roster, and foretold Duke's future with an embarrassing degree of certainty. It was a naive time.
If nothing else, the 2016-17 Blue Devils hammered home a valuable lesson, one that should serve well in 2017-18: Who knows?