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Thoughts On Duke-NC State

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NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Duke
Feb 16, 2019; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) and Duke Blue Devils forward R.J. Barrett (5) react during the second half against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils won 94-78.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

As fans, there’s always so much you don’t know. It’s way more than what you do know.

We do know that Duke is coming off of two extraordinarily intense road games. Beating Virginia is so hard to do and requires immense mental energy as well as physical. And to fall behind to Louisville by 23 and then come back...that was incredible but it must have been draining.

We also know that RJ Barrett has become a tremendous force for Duke and that Marques Bolden has become a consistent and reliable big man.

Most of us didn’t know they’d been really sick over the last couple of days.

That underscores something really key about the win over NC State and it’s this: Duke’s freshmen - the entire team really - are incredibly mature.

The idea that they could go through the week they’ve just been through and then come home and take on State with two starters sick and win again?

If we can’t know what goes on in Duke’s locker room, it’s completely impossible to know what happened in Louisville’s or State’s.

Of the three, State is generally seen as the lesser team. We’re not sure that’s entirely true.

The ACC has a great coaching tradition and one reason for that is that the A.D.’s in this conference tend to hire rising stars. Look at Coach K who came from Army. At about the same time, Bobby Cremins left Appalachian State for Georgia Tech and Jim Valvano came to State from Iona.

Even Dean Smith was an unknown assistant when he was hired although that’s a different situation as UNC was recovering from scandal and the school placed great restrictions on the basketball program. He wasn’t quite the fall guy but if he had flopped, UNC would have let him take the role.

It still follows the theme though. Lefty Driesell came to Maryland from Davidson; the Wildcats also sent Terry Holland to Virginia. Dave Odom came to Wake Forest with a good reputation as an assistant but little head coaching experience. Vic Bubas was an NC State assistant when he took the Duke job; Bill Foster came from Utah when its basketball program was not that well known outside of the Rockies (this was pre ESPN and Internet of course).

Which leads us to Kevin Keatts.

He’s only been at State for just under two full seasons. Look at what he’s done though: he’s transformed that program utterly.

It used to be a punching bag for other ACC schools.

No more.

Duke was clearly more talented than State but could never quite shake the Pack. True, the Pack never caught up. But they never gave up either. Given what we’ve seen out of State for, well, a long time, that’s significant.

This year they lost some good players and a very good center in Omer Yurtseven (he transferred to Georgetown) and they’re still a force to reckon with. State fans should be very happy with what Keatts has done so far and excited about the future.

So should Duke fans.

No team is ever perfect, but this team, despite sometimes shaky depth and minimal experience, is doing amazing things.

Obviously Zion OMG Williamson and JR Barrett are the focus. They are both sensational players.

But we’ve seen Tre Jones emerge as a superb defensive point guard too and Cam Reddish, who was hesitant and who seemed to lack confidence earlier, well that’s over. He’s a different player than he was earlier in the season.

He shot poorly in this one but remember the context: Virginia, then Louisville, lots of travel and mental fatigue not to mention physical. Look at his game winner at Florida State and the brilliant arrogance (in a positive sense) he and Barrett showed on that ridiculous between the legs pass for a long three as Duke closed in for the kill at Louisville.

We’re seeing the real Cam Reddish now.

Duke is also getting consistent play out of Marques Bolden as well. The big man has had an up and down career but he’s getting long stretches on the court now and with his shot blocking and ability to switch on guards, he’s long since established his defensive bona fides. Now his rebounding and offense are picking up as well.

Duke has been using Bolden and Javin DeLaurier in different situations. In more conventional situations, Bolden is the primary inside guy; against quicker teams, DeLaurier gets the call (for awhile against State Saturday Duke more or less let Williamson play point center).

Against Louisville, we began to see the best of Jordan Goldwire, who drove the Cardinal ball handlers nuts. Pairing him with Jones in Duke’s press has been a revelation.

The other two rotation guys who we haven’t discussed yet are Jack White and Alex O’ Connell.

White has been slumping offensively and his confidence was probably a bit off. He seemed to bounce back somewhat against State. He had a chase down block on a State fast break that was tremendous and got loose inside for some easy points. You get the feeling that confidence would make a world of difference for him right now. He’s clearly talented and he gives Duke rebounding, defense, and, hopefully, three point shooting.

The last guy is Alex O’ Connell. He’s had his moments this year and seems to like when he’s needed. He’s come through before and we expect he will again.

The main thing to us is that this group is tight and getting better. The reserves need to kick it up some, but that seems to be happening.

Back to the maturity thing.

Earlier this season Duke’s class was compared to MIchigan’s Fab Five. As Chris Webber correctly noted, times have changed and there are less upperclassmen than there were in the early ‘90s.

However, that doesn’t address the ridiculous gap in maturity between the two groups. The Fab Five wasn’t nearly as mature as this group is.

The most immature thing we’ve seen, and it’s not all that immature, but it is the outlier, was Barrett’s hilarious off-handed comment after the Virginia game that Duke wears black on the road “because it’s your funeral.”

It was funny and audacious....and probably not that smart. It may have helped to motivate Louisville to their sensational play prior to Duke’s breathtaking comeback.

Basically it was teenage exuberance. These guys are on a wild, possibly unprecedented ride. In basketball terms, it’s like the Beatles have shown up. Kevin Durant shows up to see them. LeBron James shows up to see them. Floyd Mayweather turned up. People are discussing Williamson at this weekend’s NBA All-Star events.

Tre’s brother Tyus, who led Duke to the 2015 national title, noticed the hysteria is even higher with this group.

And yet they are handling it beautifully.

As fun as the basketball has been, a major part of this joy ride has been the character of the team.

There are no guarantees competitively. Duke could have fallen short today with a sick Barrett and Bolden. Williamson might foul out of a key game. Three point shooting will be problematic.

But no matter what happens on the court, these guys are the best representation of Duke basketball and what most of us would like it to be since Shane Battier graduated, and you just can’t pay a much higher compliment than that.

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