Duke has all the hype, but another team has a better claim to college basketball's No. 1 spot



There’s another roster in America that better fits the recent profile of a national champion.

Late Tuesday evening, Marvin Bagley III — widely regarded as the best high school basketball player on the planet — announced live on ESPN that he was both committing to Duke and planning to reclassify to play in the 2017-18 season. Instantly, the Blue Devils were transformed from a fringe top five team to seemingly everyone’s favorite to cut down the nets in San Antonio on April 2.

Those who have been quick to crown Mike Krzyzewski’s current roster would be wise to remember a pair of things.

First, Bagley announcing on national television that he plans to “forego his senior year of high school” doesn’t just magically make him a graduated member of the 2017 recruiting class. The five-star center still has to be cleared by the NCAA, a hurdle that might not be cleared before the start of the season, if at all. Having said that, Duke rarely jumps when it isn’t certain that it’s going to be able to stick the landing. The smart money is on the newest Blue Devil being good to go by the time early November rolls around.

Second, we’ve been here before with Duke sitting on college basketball’s August throne. Very recently. A year ago at this time, the Blue Devils were being talked about not just as the overwhelming preseason No. 1, but as the sport’s next “super team.” A perfect blend of veteran talent and freshmen superstars was going to allow Krzyzewski to at least flirt with perfection just as John Calipari had with Kentucky two years prior. That, as we all know, did not happen.

Still, the sequel to “Super Team: A Duke Hype Story” isn’t difficult to understand. Bagley has been referred to by some in the recruiting world as a “once in a decade talent,” a player capable of having an impact on the college game similar to what we saw from Anthony Davis in 2011-12. Assuming he is ultimately given the OK by the NCAA, he’s also just one piece of a top-ranked recruiting class that once again appears to be layered with future NBA talent. One of those secondary pieces would seem to represent the biggest difference between this year’s Blue Devil team and its immediate predecessor.

Duke’s issues in 2016-17 weren’t limited to injuries, Coach K’s back surgery and Grayson Allen’s propensity for tripping opponents. The Blue Devils spent the entire season playing without a true point guard, a limitation they only truly started to overcome at the end of the campaign. That shouldn’t be an issue in 2017-18 thanks to the addition of Trevon Duval, the five-star floor general who has the ability to be one of the five best point guards in the country as a true freshman.

Even if Duval and Bagley wind up being as good as advertised, recent history still says that won’t be enough to carry Duke to the Alamodome. In the one-and-done era, just two national champions (2011-12 Kentucky and 2014-15 Duke) have been overly reliant on one-and-talent. Just three champs (toss in last year’s North Carolina squad with reserve Tony Bradley) have featured a one-and-done player at all.

The more prevalent common thread when it comes to national champions of the past decade is related to teams who brought back veteran talent that could have made the jump to the NBA. Since 2006 only one team (Villanova in 2015-16) has won it all while fielding a roster devoid of a single player who didn’t have to publicly announce he was skipping the draft and returning to school. Only two other squads have had fewer than two such players.

Though Duke lost a whopping four underclassmen to the draft last spring, it still somehow managed to return its highest-profile player. Allen might be the most recognizable face college basketball has fielded since Tyler Hansbrough. Unfortunately for both he and the program he represents, that notoriety isn’t due to his monster performance in 2015 national title game, his All-American season a year later, or his status as the overwhelming 2016-17 preseason national Player of the Year.

Allen’s infamy makes it difficult to compare the impact of his return to the return of, say, Kemba Walker in 2010-11 or Justin Jackson a season ago. With Duval coming in to run the show, Allen should return to the score-first, off-the-ball mentality that made him so tremendous as a sophomore. As a four-year Dukie who has played in 11 NCAA Tournament games, he should also be able to serve as the experienced leader that nearly every one of college basketball’s recent great teams has been able to claim. The previous 12 months, however, have proven that assuming anything when it comes to Allen is a foolish endeavor.

Does Duke have a solid claim to be the No. 1 team in the country when the season tips off on Nov. 10? Sure, but for the reasons laid out above, the holes in their argument are wider and more numerous than many who cover the sport would have you believe.

Is there a team that better fits the profile of a squad destined to win it all? I think so.

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico at Arizona
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Miller has never been to a Final Four. I get it. You get it. Anybody who hasn’t gotten it is going to get it before March 2018 rolls around. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s currently in charge of the best-looking college basketball roster in the country.

When Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins both announced their intentions to return to Tucson in mid-April, Miller got the lift he needed to finally get over the hump 11 months in the future. Trier, who would likely be a member of an NBA franchise if he’d been able to play a complete sophomore season, might be the best preseason choice to win Pac-12 Player of the Year. Alkins, a double-digit scorer (10.9 ppg) as a freshman last year, is as safe a bet as there is in the country to make the vaunted sophomore leap to stardom. Toss in a steady senior point guard like Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and all the necessary veteran parts of a championship team are there.

Then there are the young guns.

If there’s a freshman big man in America who can hang with Bagley, it’s Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton. The future lottery pick was billed as the 2017 class’ No. 1 player for much of his youth, and now enters his college career with a bit of a chip on his shoulder after slipping behind Bagley and Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. Emmanuel Akot is another five-star future pro who Miller was able to bring in late in the game, and Brandon Randolph is a four-star wing who can score in bunches.

If you want to take a “believe it when I see it” stance when it comes to Arizona, you are well within your rights to do so. You’d also be dismissing a group that perfectly fits the recent profile of an NCAA tournament champion.

Look, ranking teams with zero data to work with is a mostly meaningless exercise that requires a personal philosophy. If yours is based around pure talent, future NBA stars or players who are recognizable thanks to controversy-fueled play, Duke is your preseason No. 1. If you prefer to look for a team that fits a proven mold of success, then Arizona seems to be the better match.