NEW YORK — Duke developed a pattern in recent years, either by design or circumstances, that often featured two players scoring points at a rate noticeably higher than everybody else on the team. One season it was Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram. Last season it was RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson.
But this season figures to be different.
Or, at least, it sure looked that way during Tuesday night’s first game of the Champions Classic here inside Madison Square Garden, where No. 4 Duke overcame a nine-point deficit with fewer than 15 minutes remaining to beat No. 3 Kansas 68-66 and extend its winning streak in this high-profile event to three. In last year’s Champions Classic, Barrett got 33 points while Williamson added 28 in what we quickly learned was a sign of things to come. But in this year’s Champions Classic, no Duke player scored more than the 15 points Tre Jones contributed. Three other Duke players finished with at least 11.
“It could be a different leading scorer every night,” Cassius Stanley suggested after he took six shots, made five and finished with 13 points in his college debut. “That’s what makes us so good.”
Yeah, that’s another thing worth noting: Duke is good.
There were some who were skeptical the Blue Devils could operate at the top of the sport after losing four of the top five scorers from last season’s team — among them the No. 1 pick, No. 3 pick and No. 10 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. It’s all relative, of course; Duke’s issues are never as big as most programs’ issues. But it is true that Duke was as low as eighth on some preseason Associated Press Top 25 ballots and the lowest-ranked team at the Champions Classic for the first time in the nine-year history of this event.
Now Duke is 1-0 with a signature victory.
The Blue Devils beat the Big 12 favorite (and only team besides Michigan State to get at least three first-place votes in the preseason AP poll) by taking advantage of 28 Kansas turnovers — some of which were created, many of which were the byproduct of bad decisions. Bill Self acknowledged as much afterward.
“Duke’s defense is better than the [defense of the teams in] the exhibition games we played,” said the Jayhawks’ Hall of Fame coach. “But I think we played uncharacteristically. I think we got out of character. I think we made easy plays difficult many times. A lot of that is nerves and the environment and guys wanting to do so well so badly — and we’ll take better care of the ball moving forward. But, certainly, that’s inexcusable to turn the ball over like that.”
Despite turning the ball over 19 times in the first 26 minutes, Kansas still led 46-37 with 14:28 remaining and seemed on the verge of escaping with a good win while playing poorly. But then Duke responded with a 10-1 run highlighted by a fun transition basket that magnified the vision and passing ability of Jones, and the energy and athleticism of Stanley.
When Jones got the ball in the backcourt, his team now trailing only by a bucket, one Kansas player was even with Stanley while two others were closer to the rim he wanted to attack. None of that stopped the 6-foot-6 wing from getting where he wanted to go, though. He just took off in a sprint, got ahead of everybody and accepted a beautiful bounce pass from Jones that Stanley dunked to tie the score.
“I ran the lane expecting [the pass] but was surprised when I got it just because I think … I gotta look back … but I’m pretty sure he threw it through somebody’s legs,” Stanley said. “It was like when you’re at the ocean and you get a little smooth rock and skip it. That’s what it was like. It bounced right to me. And I was like … ‘I can’t miss this.'”
Just like that, it was 47-47.
Just like that, Duke was back in it.
And though the Blue Devils fell behind on the next possession, they never trailed by more than four points again, took the lead for good with 2:29 left and held on after — you’re not going to believe this — the Jayhawks turned the ball over one last time during a possession on which they could’ve moved ahead.
“I’m really happy with my team,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Terrific win for us.”
No, there isn’t a player on Duke’s roster this season as talented as Zion Williamson or RJ Barrett, nobody in uniform capable of overwhelming the opposition like those two did last season. That’s why Duke was abnormally low on some preseason ballots. But don’t get it twisted. The Blue Devils are still strong at point guard, tough defensively, more balanced and deeper than usual and possibly in possession of more future first-round NBA Draft picks than any other team in the country.
That might not be enough to get Barack Obama back to Cameron Indoor.
But it could be enough to win Coach K’s sixth national title.