Duke basketball recruiting is as strong as ever. Maybe that’s good for Kentucky, too?

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At this point in the 2022 basketball recruiting cycle, it looks like there’s a good chance Kentucky will land five of the top-20 players in the country — including four top-10 prospects and the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit — and still not end up with the No. 1 class.

That’s mind-boggling.

It’s a result of the just-as-great recruiting run that Duke has been on over the past few months.

It could also be a sign of things to come for both the Blue Devils and the Wildcats.

The reality that Duke is going nowhere on the recruiting trail — despite the retirement of Mike Krzyzewski at the end of this season — was driven home last week with the commitment of Dereck Lively II, the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2022 class.

Lively represented the biggest head-to-head recruiting battle between UK and Duke in this cycle. Both programs wanted him badly. And his commitment to the Blue Devils could ultimately make the difference in the race for the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in 2022.

The 7-footer joined fellow top-10ish recruits Dariq Whitehead and Kyle Filipowski in the Duke class, which also features four-star sharpshooter Jaden Schutt and could add five-star forward Mark Mitchell and top-40 guard JJ Starling in the coming months.

Such a haul for coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer probably represents a better-than-best-case scenario, even from the perspective of the most optimistic Duke fans, given the unique circumstances of the situation.

“I don’t think you can ask for a better start for Jon Scheyer,” 247Sports analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader. “For years now, he’s been one of the top assistants in the entire country, especially on the recruiting trail. So seeing this translate over with him taking over the lead at Duke — it is fair to have the feeling that maybe this would’ve fallen off a little bit and you would have to regain some traction — but he’s one of the elite recruiters in the entire country.

“And now, as head coach, it seems to be the same case.”

Scheyer isn’t the head coach yet. But he’s operating as such on the recruiting trail, and that makes what he’s accomplished over the past few months even more impressive. And even more telling of what might be in store for the future.

Krzyzewski announced his retirement — effective at the end of this season — June 2, and the school named longtime Coach K assistant and former Duke player Scheyer the program’s next head coach on the same day.

Since then, it’s been Scheyer, not Krzyzewski, managing all of the Blue Devils’ recruiting efforts. Krzyzewski did not travel during the summer evaluation periods to scout prospects in person, and he has not been on Duke’s in-home and in-school recruiting visits this fall. Coach K is now hands off with Duke recruiting.

Lively, Whitehead and Filipowski — all possible NBA lottery picks in 2023 — have committed to the Blue Devils for next season knowing Scheyer would be their head coach.

“I thought that they’d do pretty well,” Rivals.com national analyst Rob Cassidy told the Herald-Leader. “I don’t think that I ever envisioned this kind of class in year one for him.”

Battle for the future

The ideal scenario for fans of Kentucky, North Carolina and anyone else hoping for a Duke demise to begin this new era was simple: the top players on this season’s team go pro (or transfer elsewhere), Scheyer struggles to recruit in the 2022 cycle, leaving him with a depleted talent base for his first season, which leads to fewer wins than the Duke norm for the first-time head coach. Questions about Scheyer’s coaching ability follow, recruiting continues to suffer, and it snowballs from there.

It was a logical thing for Duke’s rivals to think that might happen. It’s come to pass at plenty of other places when a new face follows a longtime — this will be season No. 42 for Coach K at Duke — and legendary head coach.

Scheyer acknowledged the possibility in his introductory press conference in June.

“The thing I know I don’t have the luxury to show or to prove is. ‘Here is who I am as a head coach,’” he said then. “Although I think it boils down to trust and belief — I think all relationships do at some point. I know people that have put their belief in Coach (K) before he was able to prove what he can do, so I look forward to earning that trust.”

That Scheyer was able to get this trio of five-star players — led by Lively, the program’s biggest 2022 recruiting target — to buy into his vision of Duke basketball without Coach K marks an epic victory before he even coaches a game, and it lessens the likelihood of a post-Krzyzewski letdown.

“If you’re Duke, it’s kind of a weight off your back,” Cassidy said. “Usually when these programs get in trouble — like Indiana, when a legend leaves — it’s connecting the past to the present that becomes the sticking point. You know, there’s always going to be doubts.

“But, if you stock the cabinet with a top recruiting class like this before you ever even coach a game — which is almost impossible to do, unless you get notice that the guy’s retiring a year earlier — it takes some of the pressure off. Because it’s hard to imagine a situation where that class just absolutely craps the bed and misses the NCAA Tournament or something, which is the nightmare scenario for a first-year head coach. Because you could never recover from that. It can snowball on you quickly, and it makes it very easy to negative-recruit against your program.”

Instead, Duke should be ranked among the nation’s top teams in Scheyer’s first season. And the Blue Devils are already laying the building blocks for success beyond that.

Four days before Lively committed to Duke, the program landed a pledge from Oak Hill (Va.) point guard Caleb Foster, one of the top players in the class of 2023.

Rivals.com ranks Foster as the No. 11 player in the class, making him the first top-25 prospect from the group to commit to a college. 247Sports hasn’t updated its 2023 rankings since the spring, but Branham told the Herald-Leader that Foster would contend for a top-10 spot there.

Scheyer has his point guard for year two, and he’s still in year zero.

“Anytime you get an early commitment like that, it lays a solid groundwork,” Branham said. “Because not only do you have the assistants and the head coach recruiting, but you have — what’s become so popular — is these kids recruiting. Like Skyy Clark. Skyy Clark has been very much in discussion with a lot of these kids in selling Kentucky.”

And just like Clark, who committed last October, has helped UK build one of its best classes in years for next season, Foster can now spend the next 12 to 18 months convincing other 2023 stars to join him in Durham.

It appears that class will bring some more high-profile Kentucky vs. Duke battles.

Both programs have extended scholarship offers to No. 3-ranked Mackenzie Mgbako — with Duke already taking a commanding Crystal Ball lead — and No. 5-ranked JJ Taylor, and John Calipari and Scheyer have both prioritized fast-rising wing Matas Buzelis early in the process.

‘Too big to fail’

Just how upset should fans in places like Lexington and Chapel Hill be regarding Duke’s presumed staying power at the top of the college basketball food chain?

“It’s a little bit of a gut punch,” Cassidy said. “But at the same time — if you’re one of those fans — you can look at it and think, ‘OK, we’re in the same situation now where there are three brands in college basketball that are essentially too big to fail in the name, image and likeness era, and it’s those three.’ So as disappointing as it is for those schools that Duke didn’t crash and burn, you can also look at it from the other perspective of, ‘OK, we are also among the teams that probably can’t crash and burn anymore.’”

Obviously, North Carolina is going through its own coaching transition right now — with Hubert Davis taking over for Roy Williams — but the Tar Heels haven’t gone after the one-and-done-type players with as much gusto as UK and Duke in recent years.

In the recruiting world, it’s the Wildcats and the Blue Devils at the top. And Cassidy’s “too big to fail” observation regarding those programs should give Kentucky fans a sense of security in this otherwise uncertain NIL era.

Calipari won’t be coaching the Cats forever, and — when his departure day comes — there will certainly be some fan angst over who’s next and what that means for Kentucky basketball. The Duke transition should be a sign of the power of UK’s brand moving forward.

“The brand is huge,” Cassidy said. “These one-and-done types are looking at, ‘Where can I go to make money?’ And the answer to that is, ‘It’s Kentucky. It’s Duke. It’s North Carolina.’ It’s places like that where you’re going to get the national exposure and get the bigger national NIL deals.”

It’s clear that recruits who would have otherwise shunned college basketball for an early pro career are now staying in school instead, thanks to this summer’s NIL reforms. Not coincidentally, the top three recruiting classes for 2022 belong to Duke, Kentucky and UNC.

It seems unlikely that UK commitment Chris Livingston would have played college ball if not for the NIL changes, and Cassidy said he doesn’t think Lively would have ended up in college if not for the reforms.

Other programs have benefited, too. Baylor was able to nab top-five recruit Keyonte George. Places like Kansas and Texas and UCLA will surely get a player here and there that fits the, “Would have gone pro if not for NIL” criteria.

Memphis has clearly done the best so far, convincing star recruits Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren — two prospects long thought to be preps-to-pros locks — to reclassify and sign on for this season.

Those programs, in those markets, should be able to provide ample financial fortune to a star player or two every season, but Cassidy sees only three schools in college basketball — Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina — that have the combination of local appeal and national intrigue to deliver paydays to numerous players per team.

“I think that’s kind of what it looks like now, until it’s disproven,” he said. “Texas is a giant brand. But is Texas basketball a giant brand, or is Texas football a giant brand? UCLA is a giant brand. But is that giant brand as valuable out there in the L.A. market, when you’re surrounded by pro teams? Compared to Lexington or Durham? I don’t really think so.”

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