INDIANAPOLIS — When duke vs. Kansas began Tuesday night in the nightcap of the Champions Classic, the story centered on who was missing. Mike Krzyzewski, winner of 1,129 games and five national championships as coach of the Blue Devils, has left the arena. Bill Self, winner of 556 games and two national titles as coach of the Jayhawks, was put in timeout for four games by the university as sudden-onset penitence for NCAA offenses that occurred five years ago.
Fixtures were unfixed. In a sport dominated by coaching personas, these were glaring absences.
You could certainly tell things were different when the Blue Devils—lords of the block/charge dance under Coach K—were whistled for an astonishing six offensive fouls in the first half. Throw in a technical foul for flopping on freshman Tyrese Proctor and you could almost hear the howls of delight around college basketball at this sudden reversal of fortune. New coach Jon Scheyer isn’t going to automatically get some of the calls his legendary predecessor got. Sideline gravitas is earned, not given.
But by the end, the story was how much things remain the same, at least for Kansas. The Jayhawks who beat Duke 69–64 here looked so much like the group that cut down the Final Four nets in New Orleans last April—unperturbed by stretches of poor play, enthusiastic about the dirty work that winning entails, and ultimately composed enough to make just a few more key plays than a talented opponent.
In the final minutes you forgot that Self wasn’t there. (He was, in fact, in a nearby hotel. The terms of his suspension allow him to be with the team except for on gameday, and Self accompanied Kansas to Indy on Monday before making himself scarce on Tuesday.) His team performed just like it usually does when he’s coaching. Credit assistant Norm Roberts, filling in during these first four games, and also credit the timeless tradition of Kansas players passing down a mentality and a style and a collective will over the course of two decades.
“That is kind of our culture,” Roberts said. “That is who we are.”
Roberts said Self has a belief that his team will play “lights out” 10 games a year, and nobody is beating Kansas on those nights. It will play 10 average games a year, and manage to win nearly all of those. And it will play 10 “awful” games and try to go 7–3 in those games.
Roberts didn’t assign this game to either the average or awful category, but it clearly didn’t qualify as lights out. Kansas made just three of 19 three-point shots and had 15 turnovers. And yet, the Jayhawks did what they so often do. Their consistency is as eternal as the endless flatness of their home state.
The names change, but the roles don’t. There is always someone new ready to step into a vacancy and keep the program rolling.
Jalen Wilson is the new bellcow, following Ochai Agbaji, producing 25 points and 11 rebounds and five assists against Duke. Dajuan Harris Jr. is the latest Kansas point guard who seems to have the word “poise” surgically attached to him, recording 10 assists and just one turnover. Gradey Dick is the flashy freshman who came into the game averaging 17.5 points, scored seven in the first half, vanished for most of the second half, then basically won the game with a seven-point flurry in 80 seconds.
“We didn’t know where he was, sending out a missing person most of the half,” Roberts joked. “This is the first big-boy game he’s played in, and he really responded.”
Dick did not attempt a single shot for the first 17 1/2 minutes of the second half. Then, with the game on the line, he nailed a three-pointer, dunked a lob and made a backdoor cut for a contested layup. In a game rife with NBA talent, Dick wound up making the biggest plays.
“Shows his confidence,” Wilson said. “Shows his courage.”
The Champions Classic doubleheader, which rotates matchups between Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State, can often reveal greatness and occasionally be a false harbinger of what’s to come in March. In that regard, the Blue Devils will be the most interesting to appraise over the long haul. They certainly have the most turnover of the four teams.
Scheyer was coaching just his third game, having stepped into shoes the size of skis. And many of his best players were new as well—four freshmen and two transfers in their first seasons at Duke. Guard Jeremy Roach is essentially the only holdover who was a significant part of the 2022 Final Four team. So it shouldn’t have come as a shock that the trademark Blue Devils player huddles during dead balls were often disjointed and slow to come together. Those were a Krzyzewski staple, and he’s no longer the program’s powerful bonding element.
But as badly as Duke played at times—even more turnovers (18) than Kansas and even worse three-point shooting (3-for-21)—the Devils had the game within their grasp late. The nation’s No. 1 recruiting class asserted itself: 7-footer Kyle Filipowski had 17 points and 14 rebounds, his third straight double double to start his college career; Proctor shook off a brutal shooting start to college with some big second-half sneakers; Mark Mitchell and 7’1″ Dereck Lively II are capable of making high-level plays. (And that doesn’t even include Dariq Whitehead, maybe the best member of the class, who is working his way back from a preseason injury and could make his start next week.)
After consecutive putback baskets by Filipowski, Duke led 59–54 going into the final 4 1/2 minutes. What followed was a few freshman possessions: settling for threes that missed and turnovers. Kansas, meanwhile, tapped into its experience to produce the winning plays it needed.
“They have championship DNA,” Scheyer said. “They’ve been there before.”
And Duke quite clearly has not. Just when it looked like Scheyer’s stacked freshman class was going to announce its arrival as a force right here in the same arena and same event where Zion Williamson & Co., did four years ago, the game swung suddenly and sharply the other way. This is learning the hard way for some players who might be accustomed to having things come easily.
“There is no way to simulate it,” Scheyer said of the early big-game experience. “That doesn’t mean I’m happy losing. But you probably learn more when you lose. Absolutely, playing in this makes you better as a program.”
It might make Duke, with its greater upside, good enough to turn the tables on the Jayhawks at season’s end. But don’t count on any slippage from Kansas, which is the same as it ever was—damn good, and damn hard to beat.
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