MADISON, Wis. – There are times Tyus Jones gets rattled. This does happen. For instance, if Duke’s freshman point guard is driving somewhere and roommate Jahlil Okafor is running late, he will get perturbed. Also, it is not a good idea to mess with or steal a bite from his preferred dessert, the TGI Friday’s Brownie Obsession. This will make Jones’ blood pressure rise more than the 1,200-plus calorie treat itself. His roommate is very wary of the mood that such a transgression would incite.
"He’ll be so mad, oh my God," Okafor said Wednesday night. "It’s a wrap for me."
Then there are the many, many times Jones is flat-lined, entirely unflappable no matter what. As of Wednesday night, here is another entry on that ever-expanding list: When he played his first true road game as a college guard, against a team that made the Final Four a year ago and came in ranked No. 2 nationally, before a crowd of 17,279 detonating at even the faintest hint of a run by the home team. Under these circumstances, in a Thunderdome din, Jones poured in a career-best 22 points, added six rebounds and four assists and committed just one turnover in 37 minutes of preposterous calm. It naturally followed that the young Blue Devils walked out with an 80-70 victory over Wisconsin. It was another impressive statement about where they are already and how far they can go, especially if their first-year floor leader plays like this.
"He's wise," said Duke senior guard Quinn Cook, Jones' backcourt running mate. "He’s not a freshman. On the court, he just knows where everybody is supposed to be. He just knows everything."
It should be said that the utter completeness and bloodlessness of the Duke effort was the prevailing reason why the Blue Devils’ ceiling seemed even higher after Wednesday.
The attention swirled around Okafor and his matchup with fellow preseason All-America Frank Kaminsky, and Duke’s standout freshman center acquitted himself fine, with 13 points to Kaminsky’s 17, all while battling foul trouble.
But it was so much more than that.
It was the Blue Devils’ guards who carried the day, with Cook, Jones and Rasheeed Sulaimon combining for 49 points and four turnovers in 88 total minutes. It was shooting 65.2 percent overall in hostile territory, a record at the Kohl Center against Wisconsin. It was facing a Badgers offense often clinically run by veterans who can score from anywhere, and holding the hosts to 40.7 percent shooting. It was pretty thorough, responsible basketball from talented players. And that was enough to nudge everyone at least a little closer to wondering if the identity of the best team in the country is as clear-cut as it seems.
If Jones, the 6-1 guard, continues to control big moments like this, it’s a fair thing to wonder. He spent Wednesday afternoon in his hotel room watching "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" episodes in an effort to relax and keep his nerves in check. (It is Jones’ favorite show, even though he was born exactly 10 days before the sitcom’s run ended in May 1996.) Then he delivered, just as he had on Nov. 18, when he scored 17 second-half points to help Duke pull away from Michigan State in a Champions Classic victory.
"You got the adrenaline, the butterflies going," Jones said. "It’s everything you imagine and dream of."
It snapped Duke’s streak of five straight losses in its first true road game, because it has freshmen that deal with the pressure by welcoming it, that don’t act their age at all.
"These guys play in 9,000 games before coming into college," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "College isn’t what maybe it was to freshmen and young players 20 years ago. They have guys who physically do not look like freshman. You think Okafor looks like a freshman? Tyus, with his quickness, he doesn’t need to look bigger and stronger. He just needs to be the way he is because he can make things happen with the ball."
He certainly has a knack for asserting himself without overreaching. Traevon Jackson, Wisconsin’s veteran point guard, beat Jones cleanly to the rim late in the first half to stoke the crowd. Jones’ response: Draining three-pointers from the wing on consecutive possessions to quiet the noise and keep Duke in control at the break, albeit with a three-point lead.
"I was definitely mad at myself," Jones said. "But at the same time, I don’t look at it as, I have to score. It was just something I took."
When Jackson hit a pull-up jumper to slice the Wisconsin to deficit to two points midway through the second half, the Blue Devils immediately went to a side pick-and-roll action with Jones and Okafor. The freshman point guard came off the screen and found another first-year stud, Justise Winslow, for a three-pointer. It sparked a quick 7-0 burst that gave Duke all the breathing room it would need for the rest of the night.
"The three freshmen who have played, they’ve played in at least two competitions for our country overseas," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They’re a little bit more mature. They want to be in this environment."
They also appear to want to play defense, which is auspicious for the Blue Devils’ fortunes. A game plan heavy on switching was executed well enough to win Wednesday. Duke lost a few shooters early, most notably Kaminsky on a pair of three-pointers, but the communication got better as the action proceeded and the easy looks never came in droves for Wisconsin.
"I was able to get some things early," Kaminsky said, "but that closed off pretty quickly."
The disappearing act of the Badgers’ complementary parts helped. Much is required of them on this sort of stage. Instead, Nigel Hayes shot 1-of-5, scoring as many points (four) as fouls committed. Sam Dekker, who a seemingly sour Ryan said was limited in practice by a lingering ankle injury, shot just 2-of-5 in 24 minutes.
In fact their only contribution was helping to stoke Duke’s defensive confidence. "The upperclassmen, we were always ridiculed for being so terrible defensively," Cook said. "(Krzyzewski) took that personal. When the freshmen came in, we stressed to them that defense is going to win games, and they locked in."
As a result, Wisconsin’s 23-game regular-season non-conference winning streak came to an abrupt end. Meanwhile it is still basically just the beginning for Duke, which plays with a composure generally achieved by young teams well after the new year. And that is because the first-year player running the operation seems immune to agitation, snack stealers and tardy roommates aside. Every day is mostly waveless for Tyus Jones, and people would be wise to realize what that means for Duke and everyone else.
"This isn’t the NCAA championship," Jones said. "This is still a game in December. It was a good win for us. But we still have a lot of room to improve, and that’s what we’re going to try to do."