NEW YORK – Mike Krzyzewski has grandchildren older than the two players who sat on either side of him after Tuesday’s Classic of Champions, and the presence of Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels in the Madison Square Garden press room made one more statement. emphatic about Duke’s nature. victory over Kentucky than everything that happened in the 40 minutes of basketball that got them there.
Duke isn’t just trying to win one more NCAA championship before Krzyzewski retires, he’s trying to win one more championship with freshmen. This is not easy to do, but it is not impossible either, as many of those who play the game would have you believe.
Not when those freshmen are as talented as Banchero and Keels, who combined for nearly 60 percent of Duke’s points in a 79-71 win over Kentucky, which once cornered the market for such players, but this year he rebuilt his list by attacking the most socially acceptable. veteran transfer market.
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The challenge of presenting freshman-dominated rosters hit both teams during the COVID lockdown period in the summer of 2020, and neither team was able to establish strong connections with their incoming players. That led to top prospects like Jaylen Johnson at Duke and BJ Boston at Kentucky having miserable years, and neither team made it to the NCAA Tournament. So, with the restrictions eased and with his retirement already announced, Krzyzewski invited his freshman class of four players to campus a month earlier than usual to indoctrinate them in Duke’s ways as a university and, more specifically, during those first few weeks. . , a basketball program.
“We got here in early June and we got down to business,” Banchero told reporters. “We knew what the goal was right away: to be locked up. Once the other guys came along and joined in, it just molded into really perfect. We are a really united team. “
Banchero is 6-10,250 pounds with the grace of an NBA-level wing. He drew gasps from the crowd with 9:22 left when he had the ball with his back to Kentucky’s Keion Brooks, faked a move to his left and then turned to his right shoulder to launch a jump shot over Brooks’s reach. It was just one of his seven baskets and accounted for two of his 22 points, but it was also a warning that defending him would be an unpleasant task for all who follow.
The erratic UK offense found a brief sense of cohesion after that spectacular Banchero basket extended Duke’s lead to 15 points, the Wildcats reduced that to four, and that pleased coach John Calipari. But two units in point guard Sahvir Wheeler’s traffic were turned away by Duke’s 7-footer Mark Williams, and that was it.
“Part of it was me based on playing Sahvir for too many minutes. I think he got a little tired, ”Calipari said. “For us to be in that game, when our best players weren’t playing well and their two really good players were really good, we had a chance to win. That’s crazy “.
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Keels was an even bigger problem for Kentucky. Duke has never had a player like him. The Duke dynasty was built on perimeter players like Grant Hill and Tony Lang and Billy King, players who are 6-7 or 6-8 with active feet and long ranges who could block the passing lanes on defense and play for over the rim on offense. Krzyzewski compared Keels to a running back after leading all scores with 25 points on 10 of 18 shooting, and it was a perfect analogy. Keels is 6-4 and 221 pounds, and he was introduced to college basketball happily by constantly pushing back UK defenders without pouncing on them.
“He was just claiming to be under control, that’s something we preach,” Keels told Sporting News. “I use my body a lot, so when you get into the lane, you can’t go full throttle. You have to read the defense. I think that’s what I do well ”.
Duke’s freshman class includes top wing prospect AJ Griffin, whose 11 minutes against Kentucky produced just two points, but was considered a significant advance. He had only returned to practice 10 days earlier after missing nearly a month with a knee injury that was once feared to be even more serious. Jaylen Blakes, a guard from New Jersey, appeared briefly, but it appears to be a longer-term project.
“I feel closer to this team than I have really felt in the last decade. And I’ve been pretty close to the teams, ”Krzyzewski said. “Last year was an outlier. But I learned from COVID the value of preparation and relationships. We didn’t have them and we weren’t good. We were very mediocre. So we brought the boys as soon as we could.
“The other thing we did: we only have 10 fellows. So we did not go to the transfer portal for other players. We specifically told our boys that we weren’t doing that, and they are our boys. Just a bunch of different things to build that level of trust and camaraderie. “
The public’s antipathy towards freshman-dominated teams turned into something in college basketball, coincidentally, when John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins led the Wildcats to a 35-3 record but stalled in the NCAA Elite. Eight. Two years later, public hatred accelerated when Britain defied conventional wisdom and won the title with three first-year starters, including National Player of the Year Anthony Davis.
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Duke didn’t suffer the same backlash when he equaled that feat in 2015, because it’s Duke, the Devils prevailing over a mighty Final Four field with Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones as the most prominent players on the team. .
However, that was Krzyzewski’s first real effort with such a team, and he continued down that path with players like Jayson Tatum, Marvin Bagley and Zion Williamson. His inability to win it all is celebrated by those who flout the NBA Draft age limit rule or who have convinced themselves that freshmen who excel do so strictly for talent, while veterans have the ability. plus the nobility of experience.
The facts of this argument are simple: Veteran-dominated teams win the NCAA Tournament more often because there are so many more. Typically, there are between one and three freshman teams in a given year. And since the one-thing rule was introduced before the 2006-07 season, we’ve seen Ohio State ’07 and Kentucky ’14 make it into the title game, in addition to the championships won by Kentucky and Duke.
“We are a great team. We are going to play together, we are going to play hard, all 40 minutes, ”said Banchero. “Let’s play like Duke.”
More like 2015 Duke, probably, than 2010 Duke or 2001 Duke or 1992 Duke.
But if this group resembles any of them, Krzyzewski will enjoy the company he maintains in his final season.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.