Mostly it was just another game, an early ACC outing soon to merge in memory with other games and other seasons. Come March 1, when the Blue Devils and Demon Deacons complete their fifth straight year of home and home matchups, someone will surely recount pivotal details of their first meeting and the teams’ divergent paths ever since.
But on a cold January night in Winston-Salem much was revealed about the participants, and their struggles at this point in their evolution. And, if you cared to take a longer view, you could savor an enduring if uncelebrated rivalry, a competitive relationship dating almost without interruption to 1906, when Duke had a different name, Wake Forest was located in a different town, and both private schools were affiliated with different brands of Christianity.
Mike Krzyzewski has been on the Duke bench for part or all of 36 of those 111 seasons. He’s been a head coach for so long, he’d already finished two years teaching motion offense and man-to-man defense at Army when the initial “Star Wars” movie was released.
These days Krzyzewski’s Duke program is a well-established phenomenon, its popularity broad enough to attract a strong, vocal contingent of supporters wearing Blue Devil paraphernalia to a contest at Wake’s nearly-full Joel Coliseum. Krzyzewski is so frequent a visitor to the arena, surely by now he’s gotten over the annoyance he once confided at the Demon Deacon mascot puttering onto the spotlighted court astride a throaty, fume-producing motorcycle during pregame Wake player introductions.
A mellower Krzyzewski also doesn’t bristle anymore at references to defending the national championship a season after one of his teams wins an NCAA title. This is his fourth time in that position, more than anyone in men’s major-college history except UCLA’s John Wooden. Shrugging off others’ attempts to define his experiences is old hat.
This season the argument for looking differently at Duke’s post-title team is particularly persuasive. Just as Krzyzewski moved from critic of the 3-pointer at its inception to avid practitioner, and went from treating zone defense as a copout to a sound strategic alternative, so recently he’s gone from careful team builder to gatherer of acclaimed freshmen expected to pause only a year in Durham before moving to the pros. The transitory nature of Duke’s rosters is underscored by the differences between the 2015 champs and the current squad.
Last season’s Blue Devils revolved around 3 freshmen – Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow – who started every game they played, then left to become first-round NBA draft picks. The trio were at various stages of physical development, but were advanced in practice and understanding of winning basketball, as a 35-4 record attested.
The current core group of newcomers – Brandon Ingram, Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton -- arrived with less polish and seeming game awareness. At times they played like kids, for better and worse. But good tutelage and individual dedication are bringing out their considerable talents. Ingram, a skilled human daddy longlegs with tattoos, does everything and averages about 17 points. Kennard, a well-rounded shooter, leads the ACC in free throw accuracy (9-9 at Wake). Thornton has started the majority of Duke’s games at point guard.
Good, not really good
The freshmen, including raw big man Chase Jeter, joined holdovers who’d previously been secondary players – grad student Marshall Plumlee, senior Amile Jefferson, junior Matt Jones, and sophomore Grayson Allen. The bench was thin even before Jefferson, playing perhaps the best ball of his career, was lost indefinitely with a broken foot. “There’s nobody to sub in,” Krzyzewski said after massaging lineups and strategies with Jones and Allen in deep foul trouble for the final 16 minutes at Joel. “We’re literally on an edge all the time.”
Jones is a versatile defender, the backup playmaker and among the ACC’s most accurate 3-point shooters. Allen is a basketball shark, a peripatetic presence prowling the court, and the ACC’s No. 2 scorer behind N.C. State’s Cat Barber. Plumlee makes the most of what his 7-foot frame provides.
“Look, we’re not a really good team,” Krzyzewski offered frankly after beating Wake. “We’re a good team.”
Informed by years of coaching pros on the U.S. Olympic squad, Krzyzewski went to an NBA-style offense in the second half. He deployed four drivers who also pose genuine 3-point threats and, in the newly legislated absence of a closely guarded call to force action, burned time off the clock. Plumlee was a prime beneficiary. He made 7 of 7 shots, all dunks and layups fed by teammates’ penetration, and hit all 4 free throws to score a career-best 18 points.
Whatever the Duke coaching staff envisioned coming in – and it worked well enough to produce 50 points and 60 percent shooting in the first half – plans yielded to circumstance as play unfolded. “You try to get a feel for what the game is going to give you,” Krzyzewski said after gaining his 1031st career victory. “You hope your team is adaptable enough to adjust to what the game calls for. We did that at a high level with a real young group.”
Impact of injuries
Demon Deacon guard Codi Miller-McIntyre lamented Duke’s success getting to the basket. But the senior point guard also noted his team needed to do a much better job defensively, and conceded he similarly took advantage of offense-friendly rules by driving for many of his 20 points.
Miller-McIntyre was back at full speed after missing the Deacs’ first eight games with a broken foot. Injuries, illnesses and recovery periods endured by key contributors don’t show up in the record book, but this season already handicapped teams from Wake to N.C. State, Duke to North Carolina to Virginia.
Having players move out of and back into the lineup disrupts a team’s cohesion under the best of circumstances. Miller-McIntyre’s return to a squad that’s been his to direct for much of his career apparently knocked back impressive freshman playmaker Bryant Crawford, at least against Duke. The Deacs’ second-most prolific scorer missed all 6 shots he took and had more turnovers than assists.
Better, deeper, more gifted
One promising sign for Wake was its uncharacteristic dominance on the boards, where it commanded 11 more offensive rebounds and 16 more second-chance points than Duke. Freshman big man John Collins was instrumental in that prosperity. The main factor, however, was passionate post player Devin Thomas. At times the 6-9 senior appeared unstoppable inside. He led the squad in scoring and rebounding, as he has across the season, and pulled the Deacs within 2 points of Duke with 9:48 to go.
Thomas is explosive offensively and emotionally, the latter a chronic challenge to his self-control. His protest of a call early in the second half, including a needless, heedless staredown with veteran official Roger Ayers, drew a technical foul that cost Thomas his third personal. He spent much of the remainder of the game on the bench, especially after earning his fourth foul far from the basket with eight minutes left. Following that misstep the Devils pulled away to a double-digit win.
Still, it’s clear Wake is better, deeper, and more gifted than last year’s 13-19 squad, Manning’s first. “I believe we can play with anybody in the country, I honestly believe that for the first time since I’ve been here,” Miller-McIntyre said of a program that’s had a single winning season in the last five.