The Duke men’s basketball program is the reigning national champion. The team, however, isn’t defending the title. Only one starter returns from last season. This is not a shock in the modern college basketball climate. Not since Florida successfully defended its 2006 title has a reigning champ returned all five of its starters. Since, it’s been just as common for a champion to lose all its starters than bring back more than one.
The nature of the sport is that any team good enough to win it all is likely to witness its best players depart for the NBA, regardless of their class standing. That’s what happened to Duke after last season’s title: freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones were taken in the first round of the draft; senior Quinn Cook exhausted his eligibility.
As for the exceptions, UConn returned four starters after winning it all in 2011, but the one they lost was kind of a big deal: Kemba Walker, who carried the Huskies to the title. In 2013-14, Louisville did lose its leader, senior point guard Peyton Siva, and center Gorgui Dieng, but no more since Russ Smith and Chane Behanan made last-minute decisions to return.
When Duke entered the 2001-02 season as defending champs, Jay Bilas shared his experience as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski during Duke’s successful title defense a decade earlier (how about that website design?). Here’s an excerpt from his ESPN.com story:
Krzyzewski said that this team would not be “defending” anything, because there was nothing to defend. The 1991 title banner was hanging in Cameron, and the trophy was put away in its case, and nothing could be done to change that. That championship is over, and it can no longer be won, lost, defended or surrendered.
Krzyzewski told his “different” team that instead of defending the 1991 title, it was “pursuing” the 1992 title, one it would have a very good chance to win.
Krzyzewski didn’t want his team taking an attitude of trying to “hang on” to something. Rather, he wanted his players to go out and “take,” and to embrace the challenge of going after something.
If Coach K got that message through to his players in 1992, he should have no problem doing so with the current Blue Devils. Four of the starters will literally be different. It’s simply the price of success these days.
*Chart note: There were three instances in which one of the starters from the previous national championship game was not among the top five on his team in minutes played (for that game and the season). In two of the cases, both the actual starter and “super sub” returned. Last year, UConn returned previous year’s title game starter Philip Nolan but not Lasan Kromah (fifth in minutes), and I did not give them credit for a second returning starter.