Cassius Stanley made his collegiate debut and proved a prophet all in one magical night at Madison Square Garden.
Ever since Stanley and his Duke Blue Devils teammates arrived in town Sunday, he’s constantly been in teammate Tre Jones’ ear.
“I told him everyday,” Stanley said. “Look, you are going to lead us. I don’t care what happens. You are going to lead us.”
In Duke’s one-and-done era, Jones qualifies as a sage sophomore. He could have joined classmates Zion Wiliamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish in the NBA this season but chose to remain in school for another year.
Duke’s new freshmen know Jones gives them something other top teams don’t have. Stanley realized it before the Blue Devils had even played an official game.
In that season-opener on Tuesday night, Jones scored a team-best 15 points, dished out seven assists and had two steals as No 4 Duke bested No. 3 Kansas 68-66 at the Champions Classic.
Jones, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski simply put, was a “difference maker” for the Blue Devils.
Stanley started in the backcourt with Jones confident they would produce a win. Even when Kansas scored 14 consecutive points early in the second half to build a 46-37 lead, the Blue Devils kept their edge and battled back.
Jones was there at every turn, playing all 20 minutes of the second half.
“I told him in the middle of this game `you are going to lead us to this win’,” Stanley said. “`We are going to hop on your back.’ And that’s what we did.”
Stanley benefited personally from Jones’ play. With Kansas up 47-43, a Jones steal led to a break out. Stanley sprinted down the right side of the court, took a pass from Jones and slammed home two points.
Ochai Agbaji missed a shot for Kansas that Duke’s Jack White rebounded. He threw the ball to Jones who threaded a two-handed bounce pass through two Jayhawk defenders where Stanley caught it in stride and dunked in two more points to tie the game at 47 with 11:34 to play.
For all the confidence Stanley had in Jones before and during the game, that play brought him even more.
“I’ve never seen that (pass),” Stanley said. “I ran my lane expecting it but when I caught it, I was surprised.”
Stanley scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half. Those dunks were part of a stretch where he was the only Duke player to score while 4:24 ran off the clock.
On a night when Duke shot just 35.9 percent overall and hit only 8 of 24 3-pointers (33 percent), Stanley carried the Blue Devils through that crucial stretch to keep them in striking distance of the Jayhawks.
Jones was the steadying influence throughout as Duke moved ahead 56-52 only to see Kansas come back to lead 58-56 with 4:38 to play.
From there, a number of Blue Devils contributed, which is in line with Krzyzewski’s belief that, on any night, anyone on the roster can make the plays needed to bring Duke success.
With 3:48 left, it was freshman Matthew Hurt’s 3-pointer that put Duke up 59-58.
With Kansas up 61-59, Stanley aggressively drove the lane to bank in a shot and draw a foul. His free throw with 2:29 left put Duke ahead for good at 62-61.
After Kansas’ Devon Dotson missed a shot in the lane, White rebounded it. Alex O’Connell missed a 3-pointer but White corralled the offensive rebound to keep the possession alive for Duke.
Then it was Jones’ turn again.
His pull-up jump shot left the ball short of the net. It bounced off the rim, high up in the air, before softly falling through with 1:34 left extending Duke’s lead to 64-61.
Marcus Garrett’s shot left Duke up 64-63 before Jack White’s steal with 33 seconds left robbed Kansas of a chance to move ahead.
Jones made four consecutive free throws over the next 30 seconds, meaning Dotson’s 3-pointer with one second l left Kansas with a two-point loss.
Unlike last season, when Duke had superstars Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett to handle the ball and make plays in the final minutes, Jones is that guy now.
He was a point guard, and a fine one, last season. Now he’s that and Duke’s unquestioned leader.
“This year, it’s his team” Krzyzewski said, “so he feels less pressure with more responsibility. Those are the type of people you want in your organization.”