NEW YORK – Mike Krzyzewski has grandchildren older than the two players who sat on either side of him after Tuesday’s Champions Classic, and the presence of Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels in the Madison Square Garden media room made a more emphatic statement about the nature of Duke’s victory over Kentucky than everything that happened in the 40 minutes of basketball that led them there.
Duke isn’t just trying to win one more NCAA championship before Krzyzewski enters retirement – it’s trying to win one more championship with freshmen. This is not easy to do, but neither is it impossible, as many who follow the game would have you believe.
Not when those freshmen are as gifted as Banchero and Keels, who combined for nearly 60 percent of Duke’s points in a 79-71 victory over Kentucky, which once cornered the market on such players but this year rebuilt its roster by attacking the more socially acceptable veteran transfer market.
The challenge of fielding freshman-dominated rosters impacted both these teams during the COVID lockdown period in the summer of 2020, with neither able to make strong connections with their incoming players. That led to top prospects such as Jaylen Johnson at Duke and B.J. Boston at Kentucky having miserable years, and neither squad reaching the NCAA Tournament. So with restrictions eased, and with his retirement already announced, Krzyzewski invited his four-player freshman class to campus a month earlier than usual in order to indoctrinate them into the ways of Duke as a university and, more to the point during those early weeks, a basketball program.
“We came in here at the beginning of June, and we got straight to work,” Banchero told reporters. “We knew what the goal was right away: be locked in. Once the other guys came and joined, it just molded like really perfect. We’re a real together team.”
Banchero is 6-10, 250 pounds with the grace of an NBA-level wing player. He drew gasps from the crowd with 9:22 left when he had the ball with his back to Kentucky’s Keion Brooks, faked a move to his left and then spun into his right shoulder to launch a pull-up jumper over Brooks’ reach. It was only one of his seven baskets and represented two of his 22 points, but it also was a warning that defending him would be a nasty chore for all who follow.
UK’s erratic offense found a brief sense of cohesion after that spectacular basket by Banchero stretched Duke’s lead to 15 points, the Wildcats cutting that all the way down to four, and that pleased coach John Calipari. But two drives into traffic by point guard Sahvir Wheeler were rejected by Duke 7-footer Mark Williams, and that was it.
“Part of this was on me based on playing Sahvir too many minutes. I think he tired out a little bit,” Calipari said. “For us to be in that game, when our better players didn’t play well, and their two really good players played really well – we had a chance to win. That’s crazy.”
Keels was even more of a problem for Kentucky. Duke never has had a player like him. The Duke dynasty was built on perimeter players such as Grant Hill and Tony Lang and Billy King, players who stand 6-7 or 6-8 with active feet and long reaches who could jam passing lanes on defense and play above the rim on offense. Krzyzewski compared Keels to a running back after he’d led all scores with 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting, and it was a perfect analogy. Keels is 6-4, 221 pounds, and his introduced himself to charge-happy college basketball by consistently backing down UK defenders without bowling over them.
“I’d just been saying being under control – that’s one thing we preach,” Keels told Sporting News. “I use my body a lot, so when you get in the lane, you can’t just go in there full-steam ahead. You’ve got to read the defense. I think that’s what I do well.”
Duke’s freshman class includes top wing prospect AJ Griffin, whose 11 minutes against Kentucky produced only two points but were considered a significant development. He’d only returned to practice 10 days earlier after missing nearly a month with a knee injury once feared to be even more severe. Jaylen Blakes, a guard from New Jersey, appeared briefly but figures to be a longer-term project.
“I feel closer to this team than I have, really, in the last decade. And I’ve been pretty close with teams,” Krzyzewski said. “Last year was an outlier. But I learned from COVID the value of preparation and relationships. We didn’t have them, and we were not good. We were just very mediocre. That’s why we brought the guys in as early as we could.
“The other thing we did: We only have 10 scholarship players. So we didn’t go to the transfer portal for other players. We specifically told our guys we’re not doing that, and they’re our guys. Just a bunch of different things to build that level of trust and camaraderie.”
The public antipathy toward freshman-dominated teams became a thing in college basketball, coincidentally enough, when John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins led the Wildcats to a 35-3 record but stalled in the NCAA Elite Eight. Two years later, the public loathing accelerated when UK defied conventional wisdom and won the title with three freshman starters, including national player of the year Anthony Davis.
Duke didn’t endure quite the same backlash when it matched that feat in 2015, because it’s Duke, the Devils prevailing over a mighty Final Four field with one-and-dones Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones as the team’s most prominent players.
That was Krzyzewski’s first real endeavor with such a team, though, and he continued down that road with such players as Jayson Tatum, Marvin Bagley and Zion Williamson. Their inability to win it all is celebrated by those who despise the NBA Draft age limit rule or who’ve convinced themselves that those freshmen who excel are doing so strictly on talent whereas veterans have ability plus the nobility of experience.
The facts of this argument are simple: Veteran-dominated teams win the NCAA Tournament more often because there are so many more of them. There generally are between one and three freshman-first teams in any given year. And since the one-and-done rule was introduced in advance of the 2006-07 season, we’ve seen Ohio State’ 07 and Kentucky ’14 reach the title game in addition to the championships won by Kentucky and Duke.
“We’re a great team. We’re going to play together, we’re going to play hard, all 40 minutes,” Banchero said. “We’re going to play like Duke.”
More like 2015 Duke, probably, than 2010 Duke or 2001 Duke or 1992 Duke.
But if this group resembles any of them, Krzyzewski’s will enjoy the company he is keeping in his final season.