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Duke’s Opening Night Victory Answered Major Questions About The Team’s Depth

The Blue Devils were more than two star freshman against the Wildcats

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Duke
Duke Blue Devils guard Trevor Keels (1) and forward Joey Baker (13) reacts behind Kentucky Wildcats guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) during the second half at Madison Square Garden.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The most pivotal stretch of Duke’s opening night victory over Kentucky was a 16-to-4 run in the early stages of the second half, when Duke turned a one point deficit into a double digit lead. Notably absent from the floor for most of that period were the arguably the Blue Devils’ top three projected players, Paolo Banchero, Wendell Moore, and Mark Williams, replaced by Joey Baker, Theo John, and a clearly less than 100% AJ Griffin.

Raise your hand if you had that on your Champions Classic Bingo Card.

The headlines from Duke’s 79-71 victory over the Wildcats have focused (rightfully so) on transcendent performances from two star freshmen: Banchero’s 22 points (on 7-of-11 shooting and 8-of-9 from the line) despite battling cramps and Trevor Keels’ team leading 25 points. But entering the season, Blue Devil fans knew Banchero was a budding-star and there was growing chatter about Keels’ potential. The biggest question facing this team was its depth, and, at least for one night, those questions were answered.

Thanks in part to the team’s surprising cramping issues (both Banchero and Moore had to receive IV treatment, and Keels also appeared to struggle with cramps) and Williams’ early struggles against Oscar Tshiebwe, Duke’s starting five played less than 14 minutes together, tying Kentucky 27-27 during that period. Meanwhile, John played more minutes than Williams, and the Blue Devils were +13 with him on the floor despite a relatively modest statistical night for the fifth-year center. Duke’s more traditional senior, Joey Baker, also didn’t impact that stat sheet, but was not the defensive liability many feared he might be entering the season; the Blue Devils were +9 with him on the floor. And AJ Griffin, still recovering from a knee sprain, was perhaps the impetus behind the deciding run, showcasing his ability to be disruptive defensively even as his offensive game returns to form.

Meanwhile, Duke’s least heralded starter, Jeremy Roach, quietly played 36 minutes with only two turnovers, and added 7 rebounds despite being the smallest Blue Devil on the floor. Perhaps the biggest compliment is that Roach was inconspicuous for most of the game, able to facilitate for his teammates and holding down the fort defensively. Lacking depth or experience at the position, Roach showed that he has Coach K’s confidence to play big minutes in clutch situations; for what it’s worth, his +12 rating was second only to John.

Plus/minus is a flawed statistic, to be sure, but it’s revealing that Duke’s most efficient stretches coincided with starters on the bench. That likely won’t be the case come season’s end, but it showcases a versatility in this year’s team that has been lacking in top-heavy squads of the past few seasons. As Griffin returns to the form that has many projecting him as a one-and-done lottery pick, Duke will have 5 extremely interchangeable pieces at the 2-4, Williams and John able to hold down the center position, a sophomore point guard who has earned Coach K’s trust to play big minutes, and an experienced shooter in Baker as the third man off the bench. That may not be the 10-deep rotation that Duke fans always seem to clamor for, but it’s more functional depth than the team has had in quite a while.