It was one year ago when the foundation for the 2014-15 Duke team came together.
On the eve of the Blue Devils’ Champions Classic game against Kansas, Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor made up their collective mind about where to go to school. The top two contenders happened to be the Blue Devils and the Jayhawks.
“It’s a funny story,” Jones said. “The night we decided, Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) wanted to talk to us anyways that night. We three-way (called) him. We told him, ‘We have something we want to talk to you about, Coach,’ and he was like ‘what’s up, what’s going on?’ When we told him, I don’t know if he was expecting that. I think he was expecting more questions or something like that.”
Krzyzewski and his staff kept their big recruiting win to themselves for four days, waiting for the duo to announce their decision during a special segment on ESPNU.
Knowing Jones’ and Okafor’s commitments were secure certainly made stomaching the 94-83 loss to Kansas a bit easier. And now, for this year’s Champions Classic game against No. 19 Michigan State (1-0) in Indianapolis, Jones and Okafor will be on the floor.
“So excited,” Okafor said in the postgame locker room Saturday night after a win against Fairfield, eager to turn his attention to the next challenge. “Cannot wait. Cannot wait.”
While the Blue Devils’ first two games against Presbyterian and Fairfield afforded the young group chances to get more comfortable with each other, the level of competition wasn’t too high. Duke won both games by an average of 59.5 points.
“Look, we won big,” Krzyzewski said. “We got a little bit better, and guys are getting more accustomed to each other. And now we have to do that against bigger-time competition. And I don’t know what that means. We’ll see what the results will be.”
Okafor has seen the Champions Classic atmosphere first-hand – he was at last year’s game since it was in his Chicago hometown.
“A couple of times I ended up cheering for Duke, and people were looking at me saying, ‘Oh, so that’s where he is going,’ ” Okafor said. “But I said I was cheering for Jabari (Parker).”
Okafor said he added in a few Andrew Wiggins and Kansas shout-outs in attempts to keep everyone guessing.
“It’s just crazy that I’m here now,” Okafor said, “And I can’t wait.”
Both Jones and Okafor and fellow starting freshman Justise Winslow have started strong. Okafor is commanding double-teams in the post, and, in spite of that, is still averaging 18 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, making 85 percent of his shots from the field (17-of-20). And his presence down low is opening up opportunities for fellow big man Amile Jefferson – against Fairfield, Jefferson scored 15 points (5-of-8 from the field and 5-of-6 from the free throw line) and snagged nine rebounds largely because his defender let his attention wander over to Okafor.
Meanwhile, at the top of the offense, Jones is averaging six assists per game and has also added 10.5 points per game.
“I feel comfortable,” Jones said. “There’s only room for improvement.”
Playing against the Spartans will make the Blue Devils better, regardless if they win or lose. Early-season learning opportunities against high-quality competition could pay off later in the season – that’s the theory, at least, behind the scheduling.
“You learn from it, and you hope you learn from it by winning,” Krzyzewski said.
“I’m more concerned about them being too excited. They won’t be afraid. They will not be afraid.”