When Duke is on the court at Madison Square Garden, there’s a unique feeling to it. It’s a big-time game with a vibe only reserved for the main attraction.
Wherever Duke hits the court for pregame warmups there’s always a palpable buzz throughout the arena. This year’s Champions Classic, to tipoff the college basketball season, was no different.
Mike Krzyzewski is beginning his 40th season as head coach of the Duke men’s basketball program. The roar from the crowd last night when he was introduced is arguably on comparable level with whenever Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, at the peak of their NBA careers, visited to torment the Knicks.
That roar from the crowd was one of respect for a head coach with five national championships, three Olympic gold medals, and the unquestioned leader of a team many college basketball fans despise for their consistent high level of excellence.
“This is the one I love playing in after Cameron,” Krzyzewski said about the Garden after the No. 4 Blue Devils edged third-ranked Kansas, 68-66, on Tuesday night. “Balls bounce different, the noise. Something about this place. I’ve now coached over 50 games in here…When I eventually stop coaching, I’ll look back at the times here as very special times in New York.”
Krzyzewski has always had the pulse of his teams; the great ones always do. He gets it and knows what to do whenever the balls begin to bounce different.
It’s that level of attention to detail which sets him apart from his peers and has earned the respect of his players.
The 2019-2020 Duke Blue Devils will look nothing like the program did a year ago. Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish have moved on to the NBA. Those freshmen played their way into becoming NBA lottery picks. They also took with them a large chunk of Duke’s offensive production.
Almost half of Duke’s offensive production last season came from the explosive trio of Williamson, Barrett, and Reddish. And while this year’s incoming freshmen bring potential to put points on the board, they don’t have the pomp and circumstance which followed around last year’s class.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The reality for Duke this season is they’ll need their defense to be the spark that starts the fire. It’s an approach which Krzyzewski fully expects his team to embrace.
“It’s a different approach every year,” Krzyzewski said. “This group is going to be a unit, not a starting five. Everyone’s got to be ready to play. I’d call it old school, like older Duke teams, from years past.”
Sometimes the best fresh start is one where you take advantage of the time created to get back to your core principles. Last year’s team averaged 82.7 points per game, good for 11th in the nation. The high-wire acts of Williamson and Barrett, along with the three-point prowess of Barrett, almost made defense an afterthought. That won’t be the case with this season’s squad.
Kansas found out the hard way that Duke has put an added emphasis on defense this season. The Jayhawks turned it over 18 times last night … in the first half.
By the time Duke squeezed by Bill Self’s team for the victory, the Blue Devils had forced 28 turnovers. That was the difference in what turned out to be an exciting opening game, followed by No. 2 Kentucky knocking off top-ranked Michigan State.
The Zion-led triple-threat may not be there anymore, but Tre Jones is. The sophomore point guard is the blasting cap for Duke’s defense and has shown in flashes he can score the basketball.
“The difference maker was Tre,” Krzyzewski said afterwards. “Lot of young guys, lot of new guys. We really tried to play good defense in our first 30 practices. We played really good defense tonight. It starts with that kid. Really happy with my team. Terrific win for us.”
While defense will be Duke’s calling card this season, there’s reason to be excited on the offensive side. Cassius Stanley, Matthew Hurt, and Vernon Carey Jr. all showed promise in their debut. The three freshmen each bring something different to the table for a more balanced attack.
Stanley’s explosive on offense and could be the source of offense Duke needs to tap into when pressed for points. His two fast break dunks in the second half electrified the Garden. Hurt, meanwhile wasn’t afraid to take a big shot and Carey Jr. brings the look of an athletic enforcer for the Blue Devils.
Krzyzewski knows he’ll need to time for the new faces to settle into their roles. That places an emphasis on the continued maturation of Jones. “This year, it’s his team.”
Duke looks determined to get back to letting their defense set the tone. Their victory over Kansas, inside Coach Krzyzewski’s second-favorite place to play, was a step in the right direction.