Duke faces Kansas on Tuesday in the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden.
Duke’s freshmen admitted to being nervous in the first exhibition game against Northwest Missouri State. The potential for nerves will be at a completely different level Tuesday, just 10 days later, but it’s part of playing for Duke. You just have to deal with big games.
Fortunately, no one is much better at getting Duke ready for the big stage (or for that matter learning from failure on the big stage) than Mike Krzyzewski.
He’s talked often about the value of failure and how to use it to create future success.
We’re sure that some of those lessons, learned earlier by Krzyzewski and now institutionalized in every level of the program, were reinforced after the closer than expected win over Northwest Missouri State.
If the Championship Classic is on a different level, then so too is Kansas.
The Jayhawks are one of the most important programs in the history of college basketball. The tradition is insane: James Naismith, who invented the game, was their first coach. The legendary Phog Allen was a long-time coach. Allen had many great players and some not so great, including Dean Smith, who later surpassed his coaching accomplishments. Even Adolph Rupp came from Kansas.
Wilt Chamberlain came along a few years after Smith. JoJo White was a Jayhawk. So was Danny Manning. Roy Williams got his first head coaching job in Lawrence.
Kansas, along with Kentucky, UCLA, Indiana, Duke and UNC and just a couple of other schools, can rightly be called a blue blood. And who can match their tradition? It’s ridiculous.
After Williams left, Bill Self took over and has kept KU highly competitive. He won the national championship that eluded Williams (who found more success in that department at UNC, albeit under questionable circumstances).
More recently, like UNC, Kansas’s success has come under the spotlight with the Jayhawks being prominently mentioned in the Adidas trial and the NCAA threatening the program with major penalties.
Many of the questions swirled around forward Silvio DeSousa but in fairness to the kid, as far as we can tell, he appears to be more of a pawn of adult leeches than anything else.
Kansas loses two key players from last year: LaGerald Vick and Dedric Lawson.
Vick left the Kansas team in February last season for personal reasons and never returned. Lawson spent a single season in Lawrence after transferring from Memphis and left after his junior year for the NBA. He wasn’t drafted despite averaging nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds and last we heard he was playing G-League ball. Quentin Grimes transferred out to Houston.
Regardless of all of that, Kansas returns a relatively solid framework for the 2019-20 season, starting with two very solid frontcourt players: 7-0/270 lb. Udoka Azubuike and 6-9/240 lb. DeSousa.
Toss in one-time Duke target sophomore David McCormack (6-10/270) and it might as well be the Beefhawks. However, Azubuike has been injury prone and DeSousa missed all of last season due to the NCAA situation.
Charlotte native Devon Dotson, a 6-2 sophomore (12.3 peg, 3.7 reg and 3.5 apg) is also back as are Marcus Garrett, Mitch Lightfoot and Ochai Agbaji, among others. Late development: looks like Lightfoot will redshirt.
Dotson is solid and Agbaji has played well enough in the pre-season that he’ll be difficult to keep out of the starting lineup. He’s hit 80 percent from three point range. Yes it’s against mediocre competition but you try doing that in pickup ball. It’s not easy.
Isaiah Moss, a 6-5 transfer from Iowa, joins the team as well. He was a three-year starter in the Big Ten, so you know at a minimum he’s used to getting pushed around.
Partly due to the Adidas scandal and expected penalties, KU’s freshman class is atypically weak. Jalen Wilson, 6-8, is the most highly regarded, Top 50 or Top 100 depending on who you listen to. The others are DeJuan Harris, 6-1, Christian Braun, 6-6, Tristan Enaruna, 6-8 and Michael Jankovich, 6-5. Any of them could of course exceed expectations. Rankings are a projection and not much more.
It’s a very solid roster but our questions about Kansas basically come down to scoring: who’s going to do it?
Azubuike still has great potential and averaged roughly 13 points and seven boards over the last to years. However, as a freshman he played in only 12 games and last year just nine. For a guy that massive, he’s not been very durable. Maybe this will be the year for him.
When he is healthy though he’s a real pain to deal with. He’s huge and nimble - a rare combination.
DeSousa was ruled ineligible for two seasons but won this year back on NCAA appeal. He’s a potential pro.
Garrett by the way is an outstanding defender and that will always get you minutes.
People got on Kansas for not winning the Big 12 for the first time in 150 seasons (okay, it only seemed like 150) but not having those two big guys was a crippling blow. Self likes his big guys and while he adapted reasonably well, last year was just a tough season for KU. Life just got tougher when Vick left.
Based on what we’re hearing we’d expect Dotson to start obviously - he’s their best returning offensive weapon - and Agbaji. Self has said that guy has improved tremendously.
It might be a departure for his system, but putting 6-5 Moss in with a three guard lineup could work too.
Our questions about this game center around how Duke will defend against the Beefhawks inside. Javin DeLaurier has been around long enough to hold his own defensively against most people but Vernon Carey is going from 0 in the preseason to 60 in the first regular season game of his Duke career if he’s guarding Azubuike. And after those two guys, Duke gets smaller and thinner in a hurry. Remember the 2004 Final Four? Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph both fouled out trying to guard Emeka Okafor. And the last guy with any size, Nick Horvath, did too. Duke had to finish with freshman Luol Deng as the biggest guy on the court. Something like that could happen here too but it’s worth noting that he’s a disastrous free throw shooter. He topped out in his sophomore year at 41.3 percent and last year fell back to 34.4 percent. Self thinks it’s a mental issue which it almost has to be.
The best way to attack Kansas may ultimately be to simply pressure the ball so much that they can’t get comfortable. With Thing 1 and Thing 2, aka Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire, Duke can apply immense pressure. Wendell Moore and Cassius Stanley will also get a chance to prove they belong on this level.
Another way to apply pressure is via offense. If Matthew Hurt is fluid and moving well, someone has to chase him. Azubuike could never do it and would be wasted if he tried. We’re not sure about DeSousa only because we haven’t seen him enough. Still, someone has to check Hurt.
But what about this? What if Carey moves to his perimeter game too?
Remember Krzyzewski said that Carey had learned the perimeter first and was just now coming to terms with playing inside. What if Duke lets them both shoot outside and they’re hitting? Does Kansas just zone and hope for the best?
Usually we have a better sense of a game like this. We think it may simply come down to Duke’s perimeter defense or KU’s interior power and obviously DeLaurier and Carey will be critical.
No matter what happens here though, Carey’s likely to get a good stretch to mature with Colorado State, Central Arkansas, Georgia State, Cal, Georgetown or Texas, Stephen F. Austin and Winthrop before Duke faces Michigan State exactly a month from today.
Georgetown and Texas are a cut above the other opponents here obviously but the same principle applies: he’ll be more experienced when he faces them.
As far as Kansas goes, we’ll soon see if he is ready. And that goes for the rest of his team, too. Tuesday night is going to be a major challenge and we’ll know a lot more about Duke after no matter who wins.