INDIANAPOLIS -- On the first few trips down the floor Tuesday night, Jahlil Okafor looked like he knew something no one else did. There was this hint of a smile on the Duke freshman’s face, as though he held a secret that he just couldn’t wait reveal. For a time, what transpired was really no surprise at all: Okafor worked defenders so thoroughly and mercilessly that they appear bolted to the floor. Every flawless drop step or decisive pass to trigger a scoring sequence was a rebuke to a Michigan State defense built to bully people and not to get pushed around. Okafor was everything everyone thought he was to start the Champions Classic. The secret was out.
If there was a big reveal, though, it came later. And it was that Duke is much bigger than the biggest of its prized freshmen. The Blue Devils’ 81-71 win over Michigan State at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was the product of team that is much more composed and polished than one might expect it to be in November, a team that can confidently rely on at least three or four players to get the scores that snuff out the momentum and hope of the opposition. It is the sort of team that can watch Okfaor slink to the bench with second-half foul trouble and build on a lead against an upper-level Big Ten team. On Tuesday, Duke looked like it couldn’t get much better when the calendar insists it can.
“It’s big,” senior guard Quinn Cook said as he walked back to the locker room, on a night when his game-high 19 points almost went unnoticed. “Guys have confidence. Especially for the younger guys, for this to be their first big-time game here at Duke, against a Tom Izzo Michigan State team, it says a lot about those guys’ maturity. We play together. We don’t splinter.”
It helps to have so many guys who can put things together. There was of course Okafor scoring off a screen-and-roll and on a lob feed in the first 44 seconds of the game, piling up eight points in the first five minutes. He didn’t look uncomfortable with the ball until a missed shot about nine minutes in, and by then he’d set the terms of engagement. But Duke’s most important work was done without him.
After Michigan State drew within three midway through the second half, the Blue Devils worked the ball around on an aimless possession. So freshman Justise Winslow began a drive from the wing, stopped on a dime for a behind-the-back dribble, and then finished at rim in a sequence that was as exhilarating for Duke and fans as it was exasperating for the Spartans. Soon after, Okafor would pick up his fourth foul, so it was only sensible that Tyus Jones -- who had one shot and zero first-half points -- would take over the game. The freshman guard scored 12 of the team’s next 16 points, including a soul-crushing four-point play. When he was done, Duke had a 13-point lead with four minutes left.
Cut off one freshman stud, and apparently two more grow in his place. “Obviously, you’re not just coming in as comfortable as you are with your high school team or AAU team,” said Jones, who finished with 17 points and didn’t miss a shot or free throw after halftime. “But the older guys made us comfortable, told us don’t be passive, don’t come in here not being aggressive or not playing how you played to get here. The coaches were the same way. They believe in us to make plays and they know what we all can do.”
That’s not a hard call for Mike Krzyzewski, out of necessity and out of knowing what a good basketball player looks like.
Duke was going to ride some very promising freshmen. And in that case, they couldn’t be apprehensive.
“I don’t want our guys ever to hold back,” Krzyzewski said. “That doesn’t surprise me, that guys step up. We have a number of good players who can shoot the ball.”
That was the most glaring difference Tuesday: Michigan State held on for a bit via sheer grittiness, as evidenced by its 13 offensive rebounds, but at no point did it look like it had a player capable of asserting himself upon the action. And it has seniors like Travis Trice and Branden Dawson. Coming out of the eight-minute timeout and facing a 13-point hole, Spartans assistant Dane Fife caught Trice near midcourt for one last coaching point. “Win the [expletive] game,” Fife told Trice. On the ensuing possession, the senior guard bricked a floater lofted from just outside the lane.
Trice did hit a step-back three-pointer one possession later, and he finished with 15 points and eight assists. Dawson managed 18 points and nine rebounds. Yet none of it was insistent. “We’ll run a lot better offense, I promise you that,” Izzo said afterward. He has earned the benefit of the doubt there. But there is this nagging feeling that his team may get better, but not significantly better, over the next few weeks before the Big Ten grind begins.
Duke, of course, hasn’t vetted contractors to install the ceiling. There’s no point, because none should exist. The question of Jones and Cook co-existing is over; they combined for 36 points and 10 assists on Tuesday. With each sensational individual play, like the coast-to-coast score in the second half in which he crossed over two flailing Michigan State defenders, Winslow offered a convincing argument that he’ll be among the best players in the country by March. And then there’s Okafor, who may be the best of all, who put up 15 points and six rebounds and who was unguardable at times ... and who Krzyzewski hopes will have defenses completely figured out by the time the Blue Devils start conference play.
“We’re just so deep with our team,” Okafor said. “Every night somebody different is going to step up.”
It was a night to unveil that secret for the world to see. As Krzyzewki left the floor Tuesday, Duke athletic director Kevin White applauded him before shaking his hand.
“Big win,” Krzyzewski told White, in maybe the most telling two syllables of the evening.
The Duke coach was aware of the statement his crew made. Against a willful, gritty Big Ten team capable of winning a bunch of games, Duke looked like it was so much more than a single star freshman. It looked all grown up, all of a sudden.