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Insider

Okafor, Jones make Duke an early favorite

11/16/2013
Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, both consensus top-10 recruits, chose Duke on Friday. ESPN, Icon SMI

Mike Krzyzewski just turned Duke’s most glaring weaknesses into what will soon become the Blue Devils’ greatest strengths.

The two positions to build a team around? Point guard and a big man. Coach K landed arguably the No. 1 player at both spots Friday when Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor decided to head to Durham as a so-called package deal.

Jones is a cerebral, pass-first floor leader who is more concerned with setting up his teammates than his scoring numbers. Okafor is a true post player who has terrific footwork and catches nearly everything thrown his way.

With the duo -- along with wing Grayson Allen -- on the way to Durham for 2014-15, the Blue Devils become legitimate national title contenders and possibly even the favorite to cut down the nets in 2015.

This season, Duke has a major void in the middle, thus the reason why Krzyzewski has had virtually no choice but to play fast, pressing early and often. He’ll go with 6-foot-8 string bean Amile Jefferson, toss in a bit of Marshall Plumlee and also use Jabari Parker at that spot out of necessity.

Quinn Cook has a year of starter minutes under his belt and will be a senior next season, but Jones is an upgrade -- yes, even as an inexperienced freshman.

Let’s assume Parker leaves school after this season (a pretty fair assumption). Duke can still trot out a lineup of Jones at point guard, Okafor at center, Jefferson at power forward and Rodney Hood and Rasheed Sulaimon on the wing. If Hood also elects to bolt after this season, Coach K can still throw talented, versatile wing Matt Jones into the starting role.

The addition of Jones and Okafor was a game-changer for whoever landed the duo, but it was especially critical for Duke. The Blue Devils would have likely become just another top-20 team if Kansas had landed the prized pair.

Krzyzewski is set up to challenge for national titles as he makes his way into his late 60s. This season, the Blue Devils have more holes than Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville and even Arizona, but next season the pieces will fit together -- especially the most imperative one at point guard. Okafor and Jones will also arrive with pre-established chemistry.

Will Krzyzewski elect to go with Jones over Cook? Will he play the pair together? My guess is he’ll play whatever lineup gives him the greatest chance to hang another banner at Cameron, and that means Jones having the ball in his hands the majority of the time.

Miller has Arizona rising

It’s not often John Calipari gets beat in the recruiting game, but Sean Miller has had Kentucky’s number lately.

Miller has found a way to keep the top West Coast players in Tucson. He beat Calipari for Aaron Gordon last year and managed to get a signature from elite wing Stanley Johnson on Friday. He also beat Kentucky for Kaleb Tarczewski a few years ago as well as Xavier transfer Mark Lyons.

Miller doesn’t quite have the program at Lute Olson-level, but he’s certainly put Arizona back on the map as a school that will be in contention for Final Four appearances year in and year out.

Gordon will be history after this season. However, the Wildcats could have a veteran team a year from now, and they’ll add what they need most: a scorer on the wing. Here’s the potential rotation: a senior backcourt of point guard T.J. McConnell and wing Nick Johnson, junior big men Brandon Ashley and Tarczewski, sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, junior shooting guard Gabe York and a pair of top-30 freshmen in Johnson and power forward Craig Victor (No. 29).

Rough day in Champaign

Illinois fans celebrated when Quentin Snider, just weeks after decommitting from Louisville, picked the Illini. John Groce showed he could coach a season ago by taking a mediocre Illinois team to the NCAA tournament, but recruiting would ultimately prove decisive to his -- and the program’s -- success.

Snider had given those in Champaign a feeling that the program was loading up. Illinois already had a pledge from top-50 recruit Leron Black, was in the mix for elite frontcourt player Cliff Alexander and now had a strong point guard.

It had the makings of being a huge day in Champaign. Instead, it turned into a complete disaster.

Snider, a Louisville native, wound up with a last-minute change of heart and signed with Rick Pitino and the Cards. Then Alexander didn’t just choose Kansas over Illinois, but he disrespected his home-state program by faking to grab an Illini hat before donning a blue Jayhawks lid.

Illinois will still be on solid footing, but the Illini -- with Alexander, Snider and Black -- had a chance to be good. Really good.

Kentucky’s next crew of one-and-done players

Calipari remains in the hunt for the lone uncommitted top-five player, Myles Turner, a long and talented big man. But the Wildcats could also fail to secure one of the top five players in the country for the first time in a while.

That hardly means that UK struggled on the recruiting trail, but Calipari did swing and miss on Jones, Okafor, Alexander and talented point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who chose SMU over a slew of elite programs.

Kentucky will bring in Karl Towns (No. 6), Trey Lyles (No. 7), Devin Booker (No. 18) and Tyler Ulis (No. 33).

None of these guys is a lock to leave Lexington after one season. Ulis is a 5-9 point guard who will likely wear a UK uniform for the next four seasons.

I’m not saying Towns, Lyles and Booker might not have a chance to bolt for the NBA, but these guys are hardly no-brainers -- as was the case with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Julius Randle.

That could bode well for the one area that Calipari has lacked since arriving: experience.

Tar Heels trio

While Roy Williams’ neighbor down the road stole the front-page headlines, UNC still managed to put together a quality class with the addition of Justin Jackson (No. 8), Theo Pinson (No. 13) and Joel Berry (No. 15).

But my how times have changed over the past few years. It wasn’t all that long ago that Williams was the most feared recruiter in the country, back when Calipari was still at Memphis and before Coach K deftly used his USA Basketball clout to aid in landing guys like Parker, Okafor and Jones.

Williams hasn’t had a one-and-done player since Brandan Wright in 2007. This program is sorely lacking star power. The Tar Heels have some nice pieces -- led by sophomore guard Marcus Paige -- but they need an elite-level player and also a knockdown shooter.

I’m not sure they will get either from the Class of 2014. I really like all these kids, and they will certainly help upgrade the overall talent in Chapel Hill. However, I’m not sure I anticipate any of the trio reaching All-American status while at UNC.