A Recruiting Whirlwind

Over the past few years,  Blue Devil fans bemoaned the near-misses and shocking twists that came to characterize Duke recruiting. But this was not always the case.

As many fans can recall, Duke enjoyed a recruiting “renaissance” in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that resulted in five consecutive (1997-2001) and six overall ACC Regular Season Titles, five consecutive ACC Tournament Championships (1999-2003), four consecutive seasons ranked No. 1 in the  final AP poll (1999-2002), three Final Fours (1999, 2001, 2004), and the 2001 National Championship.

But the mighty did finally fall, even if what Duke has achieved in the past few years outranks a vast majority of Division I programs. One can mark the genesis of the recruiting struggles in 2004 – with the three man recruiting class of Shaun Livingston, Demarcus Nelson, and David McClure. Livingston was a prep phenomenon—many called him the prototype point guard of basketball’s next generation. Boasting a height of 6’7”, a fantastic passing game, and innate leadership skills, Livingston was the next great Duke floor general. That is, until he declared for the NBA Draft, and left a loaded Duke team weakened at the most important position. Livingston would later suffer a devastating knee injury, derailing what looked to be a promising professional career.

Since then, many highly-touted recruits have either spurned Duke (despite previously praising us) or not panned out (despite high expectations and rankings). Greg Monroe broke hearts by attending Georgetown (although he floundered in Cameron this past year) and Kenny Boynton decided to stay in his home state of Florida. Former Tar Heel Brandan Wright seriously considered Duke (after Kentucky, of course) before crossing over to the light blue side (It should be noted that since leaving after his freshman campaign, he has played in only 77 games in two years in the NBA). Meanwhile, Greg Echenique declined to follow fellow Garden State native Lance Thomas’ path to Durham, electing to attend Rutgers instead (?!).  To be certain, Duke has known pain on the recruiting trail for several years now—and fans have rationally theorized that the sub par recruiting has led to lackluster performance in March. Actually, it guarantees fewer wins and disappointment in the postseason (see: Josh McRoberts). It’s a natural law, like Bernoulli’s principle or whatever.

In that murky light, the revamped recruiting efforts of the last 6 months have quickened the heart rates of Blue Devils nationwide. Instead of targeting a select few recruits and praying for their commitments, Coach K and the coaching staff have adopted the tried and true “wide net” strategy. The practice is simple: get in touch with several elite players at each needed position. When a relationship is firmly established, and said player understands that he may need to compete for minutes in the rotation, extend an offer of scholarship. At worst, the player loses interest and chooses another school. At best, the group of players develops camaraderie and appreciates the competitive nature of their recruitment. They get excited at the team’s potential. Several of them commit and compose a highly talented and touted class. Championships ensue, and benches are set ablaze on the West Campus quad.

So what are the fruits of this labor? Duke landed Andre Dawkins in June 2008, with Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton following a few months later. Dawkins, a Duke fan since childhood, has already added to his legend by enrolling early and strengthening this year’s guard core. Hairston and Thornton are eager to join him in two seasons. Moreover, Duke has a reasonably high chance of landing both Harrison Barnes (who plans to visit canpus on October 23rd) and Kyrie Irving (September 18th), two top-10 players in 2010, as well as Baltimore-area prospect Roscoe Smith. We have also been in contact with three other top point guards: Brandon Knight, Ray McCallum Jr., and Joe Jackson. Although it’s improbable and/or impossible to land all of these players, the new strategy instills hope in our upcoming classes, rather than anxiety at what they may lack.

More recently (especially within the past two weeks), Duke has been involved with standout athletes from the junior and sophomore high school classes. 2011 power forwards Quincy Miller and Marshall Plumlee (yes, the youngest brother of Miles and Mason) have been offered scholarships, and Class of 2012 standout J.P. Tokoto received a scholarship offer on Tuesday, August 25th after separating himself from the pack at the High Performance Camp this past weekend. Duke has also contacted several other elite recruits in the 2011 class, including shooting guard Bradley Beal, point guard Quinn Cook, and power forward James McAdoo. Each player on Duke’s list is a major national prospect, armed with offers from elite programs. Duke fits firmly in that category—there is no reason to settle for less than the best recruits.

Coach K and the coaching staff have sent a clear message: the proverbial “eggs” will no longer be in only a select few baskets. By actively recruiting a surplus of prospects, Duke is acting confidently and adapting to changes in prep basketball. This aggressive approach should allow Duke to once again redefine the upper echelon of college basketball in the near future.

The recruiting lilt of the past 5 years directly correlates with our relative slip over the past 5 years. It’s time for that tide to turn.