With each game top-ranked Duke plays relying heavily on its four freshmen starters, the more the precocious Blue Devils show that age is just a number.
On Monday, having traveled nearly 5,000 miles from home to play in a tiny gym on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Blue Devils played with joy and forcefulness, working hard on defense and making smart decisions on offense.
A 90-64 win over San Diego State to open the Maui Invitational was yet another example that, despite being so inexperienced at college basketball, this Duke team will be tough to deal with all season long.
“They’re over themselves,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s not about them. They’re very secure and they have been parented well, they have been coached well, and so they understand being part of something bigger than them, but still being really good.”
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Duke used 10 players in the first half and eight of them scored. Only one, freshman R.J. Barrett, scored more than 10 points as Duke built a 49-32 lead.
San Diego State played defense aiming to cut off the driving lanes Duke likes to use to set up dunks or other high-percentage shots that lead to blowout wins.
Duke kept passing the ball in its half-court offense until it found the best shot possible. In the first half, that mean taking 17 3-pointers. The Blue Devils made nine while not recording a single dunk.
What Duke lacked in style points it made up for with execution that fed another easy win.
“We all just want to win, at the end of the day,” Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones said. “So I mean we’re going to come in to every game prepared, but I mean we’re going to do everything we can just to win. And so making that extra pass and passing up on good shots for great shots is a thing that we’re going to be doing a lot.”
Through four games, Army is the only team to be within 10 points of Duke after halftime. The Black Knights packed the middle, slowed the tempo and trailed the Blue Devils by just six points with 12 minutes to play. The Blue Devils eventually won 94-72, but Army’s approach caught the eye of other coaches.
San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher is one of them. He hoped Duke would miss those long-distance shots. But it didn’t work out that way.
“A lot of the threes that we gave up were scouting report threes,” Dutcher said. “I told them that. That was a coach’s decision. We tried to pack the paint against Duke, tried to play that top nail help side, tried to collapse and make them kick and shoot perimeter threes and to their credit they made them.
“We watched the Army game, we thought they did a lot of the same things, tried to make it tough for them to penetrate and to their credit they were able to kick the ball out and shot the ball at a really high level from three-point range. When they did that, obviously they were tough to compete with.”
This Duke team feeds off the energy it gets from transition baskets and all the dunks Instagram sensation Zion Williamson produces. So, naturally, a team that can shut that part of Duke’s game down would figure to benefit from eliminating that energy source.
Instead, these Blue Devils don’t suffer from impatience. They are finding other ways to dominate.
Against San Diego State, that meant a one-dribble penetration from the ball-handler out front before a pass was thrown that eventually delivered the ball to an open 3-point shooter. A less-secure team might take ill-advised drives into the crowded paint where turnovers can occur.
“They tried to not let us penetrate completely to the bucket,” Krzyzewski said. “And the one dribble penetration, as long as our guys were ready to shoot, they were ready to shoot and they knocked them down. I thought that was the difference in the first half.”
That was really all it took for Duke to ensure it wouldn’t lose.
The win sets up Duke’s second game against a top-10 opponent this season. No. 8 Auburn survived a challenge from tough-minded Xavier to post an 88-79 overtime win.
Having defeated then-No. 2 Kentucky 118-84 on Nov. 6 in Indianapolis, Duke faces another talented SEC foe in the Tigers in Tuesday’s Maui Invitational semifinals at 8 p.m.
Simply losing this game wouldn’t do anything to damage Duke’s national championship hopes. But the Blue Devils don’t play like they have that kind of pressure on them yet.
Theirs is a joyful game, one where it appears the egos of freshmen on the path for a one-year college experience before heading to the NBA aren’t an obstacle.
“They’re a pleasure, I mean they’re really a pleasure to coach,” Krzyzewski said. “They get along so well. Hopefully we can stay healthy, do well again (Tuesday) and continue to advance. But we recognize that the team we play (Tuesday) is capable, definitely capable of beating us and beating anybody, really. So that will be a good test for us.”