We’re just one day removed from the thrilling 2016 National Championship game, meaning the grace period is over, and we can discuss next year’s National Champion.
No, it’s not Kentucky.
Although Kentucky has put together a marvelous recruiting class this season, this decision takes returning players into account as much as incoming recruits. Recently, Coach Calipari deemed all of his players eligible for the draft, though not all will be hiring agents. The players who got sporadic minutes are going to return, but the major players like Tyler Ulis, Marcus Lee, and Isaiah Briscoe could fall either way.
Our predicted champion is another team that dons blue and white, but this team is not a part of the SEC.
We have selected the Duke Blue Devils as our way-too-early National champs. And boy, do they look good. Coach K has also put together a stellar recruiting class, and it will be able to rival Kentucky’s if Marques Bolden elects to go to Durham. Bolden, the Nation’s 20th best player according to ESPN, is a 6’10 All-American, who is leaning towards Duke, according to 247Sports.
Even without Bolden, Duke has already signed Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, the first and second-best players in the class, respectively. Giles is a 6’10 center out of the renowned Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. He possesses a solid jump shot and handles for a big man, great length, and good athleticism. The only thing Duke fans will have to worry about is how Giles will come back after tearing his ACL earlier this season.
Jayson Tatum, a 6’9 forward from Chaminade Prep in St. Louis, was the Gatorade National Basketball POY and is fresh off a state championship. Tatum is a long, athletic wing player who’s great at putting the ball in the basket from all three levels.
Getting a little lost in the mix is Frank Jackson, a 6’4 combo guard from Lone Peak High in Utah. Another great scorer from multiple levels, Jackson was a McDonald’s All-American and shared MVP honors with Josh Jackson.
Rounding out the ESPN 100 recruits is Javin Delaurier from Saint Annes-Belfield in Virginia. Much like his soon to be teammates, Delaurier is a superb athlete with exceptional defensive skill and rim protection.
While this incoming freshman class is formidable, where Duke separates themselves is with all their returning players. The biggest name coming back is Grayson Allen, who announced his return for his junior season earlier today. Allen rose to become one of the best players in the ACC and one the nation’s most lethal scorers. After averaging 21.6 points per game and shooting 42% from three, Allen was selected to the SN and AP All-America teams, and the All-ACC team.
Others coming back include Matt Jones, Luke Kennard, and Derryck Thornton, whom all had extended playing time last year. Amile Jefferson will be coming back as well after medically redshirting due to a severe ankle injury. Before that injury, Jefferson was a dominant force and averaged a double-double in the nine games he appeared.
Duke’s potential starting lineup is going to look something like this: Jackson, Allen, Tatum, Giles, and Jefferson. Those five are not only long and athletic but incredibly skilled in their respective positions.
Depth was a major concern for the Blue Devils this year, and they would only go six or seven deep on any night. The upcoming season would feature Luke Kennard, Matt Jones, and Derryck Thornton as the main guys off the bench. Sean Obi, Chase Jeter, and Javin DeLaurier would then have to battle for any leftover minutes; if Marques Bolden was to sign, add him to the mix.
Of course, there are going to be other teams that are in the mix. And once March Madness rolls around, anything can happen. There are other schools who have secured multiple top-30 prospects outside of Duke and Kentucky. Michigan State has three, UCLA has two (in the top 10), and Arizona has two also.
Pound-for-pound, Duke will be the most exciting team in college basketball. Their mix of incoming players and returners is perfect, and will give opponents countless nightmares.