Love to hate Duke? The NCAA and Marvin Bagley III just did your attitude a big favor
When Bagley was cleared to play for Duke, the Blue Devils became the clear favorite to win it all
If you hated Duke before, how does this make you feel? The top-ranked high school basketball prospect in the world successfully managed to switch his year of graduation over the summer, got accepted into Duke and was subsequently, swiftly cleared from an academic and amateur standpoint by the NCAA.
The Blue Devils figure to be the consensus No. 1 team in preseason polls because the NCAA reviewed Bagley's case and determined everything to be above board. Yet plenty of people, including some in the coaching community, wondered how Bagley, his family and Duke managed to pull this off.
"Incredible but not at all surprising," one ACC coach said.
So if you root against Duke, Bagley -- projected as the No. 1 overall pick in June NBA Draft -- reinforces that sentiment. Duke was already rich, sporting obscene talent. Bagley upgrades Duke's title chances and alters the competitive topography for the next seven months. The left-handed, 6-foot-10 superstar enhances Duke's frontcourt by giving the Blue Devils a mismatch at power forward every night.
Duke will be to college basketball what Golden State is to the NBA: the primary story, generating headlines practically every day. Bagley is a big piece, but only part of the equation. Add Bagley to the always-polarizing Grayson Allen, Duke may well be at its most hatable this season. Misguided or not, this narrative arc will begin to curl from the opening tip on Nov. 10, when Duke unleashes Bagley and Co. on Elon.
Hating Duke is an every-year thing, yes, but no player has ever received as much vitriol as Allen (particularly when considering venom directed at Christian Laettner, Danny Ferry, Steve Wojciechowski or J.J. Redick was never amplified by social media). Stacking the addition of Bagley -- particularly the way he wound up in Durham -- on top of Allen's presence could portend a new level of schadenfreude lust for Duke this season. That kind of interest and coverage is good for college basketball.
Beyond Bagley and Allen headlining the 2017-18 squad, Duke should be extremely compelling -- even more so than last season when the Blue Devils were the preseason favorite to win it all. Then injuries to players, and even Krzyzewski, materialized. Allen's tripping incidents and a suspension brought a firestorm of bad publicity. Duke wound up losing as a 2 seed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to a South Carolina program that had never reached the Sweet 16. It was one of the more bizarre seasons in program history, yet this campaign could top what went down in 2016-17.
Duke is the favorite to win the national title. That's a lot of expectation for a team that's going to start four freshmen (Bagley, Wendell Carter, Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval). There have been talented national-title teams led by freshmen in the past decade, but no team starting four freshmen has won it all.
Can Duke do it? It's a major storyline as we head to November, but let's not overreact.
Not only will four freshmen start, but this also is Krzyzewski's least experienced team overall. Allen is the only player returning who averaged more than eight minutes last season. Duke is getting No. 1 love, but we could be witnessing (and pulling?) a classic media move: prop up a team, watch it stumble and then ask, "How did they screw it up?"
Bagley is ridiculously talented, but talented enough to ensure Duke is the nation's best come March -- and April? Duke is pulling a Kentucky, and the parallels are alluring. Load up with five-star, one-and-done talent and hope the youth movement doesn't backfire. It's going to be a fascinating, entertaining and polarizing season from start to finish.
Big picture: college basketball will benefit because Bagley will play for Duke. He brings more interest to the most interesting team in the sport. And he could be one of the most talented college players of the past 15 years. But even if Bagley is predictably awesome, it doesn't guarantee Duke is the best. Arizona has great freshmen and a lot of experience returning. Michigan State has a claim to the strongest sophomore class -- and Miles Bridges will push Bagley (and/or Allen) for Player of the Year consideration. Kansas is Kansas: the King in the Big 12.
Duke will be riveting, but could wind up falling short of a national title. Seeing how this works, and whether the freshman Bagley or the senior Allen becomes Duke's go-to guy, and how the alchemy sizzles or fizzles, will provide the best season-long plot line in college basketball.
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