– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEW YORK — Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski could not hide the near-unceasing joy etched across his face that was brought about by his 2018-19 edition of the Blue Devils winning a game in an NCAA Tournament-like atmosphere against one of the top teams in the country on Thursday. Nor did Coach K want to hide that feeling while seated in the middle of two of his young prodigies during the post-game press conference, from favorably comparing one of them to some of the top point guards and ball handlers the sport has ever produced to playfully teasing the other about his heavy Australian accent.
It was those two players, freshman point guard Tre Jones and junior forward Jack White, who lifted the Blue Devils from a game-long offensive funk in the final few minutes in helping Duke to defeat No. 12 Texas Tech 69-58 at Madison Square Garden.
While the admiration and non-stop attention on the Blue Devils focus on fellow freshmen phenoms and soon-to-be NBA stars RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson — and deservedly so — Jones dazzled in the biggest stage Duke has played in this season, amassing five rebounds, five assists and six steals to go along with his 13 points.
“[Tre] just turned it around for us with six steals,” said Krzyzewski. “Usually, he’s not looking for his shot. He willed balls in and all of our guys just fed off that. It was magnificent to see.”
In a game where Duke shot under 40 percent in each half and found themselves down eight early in the second half, it was White, a native of Australia whose mother and sister flew in to New York to watch him play tonight, who buried two key three-pointers in the second half, including one off of a feed from Jones with 6:04 remaining that gave the Blue Devils a 56-55 lead. Duke would not trail for the remainder of the contest after White’s shot.
“And then Jack just made some big plays for us. The three from the corner when we just couldn’t hit a shot,” Krzyzewski said. “We did miss some shots that we normally make, but he hit a big one and his defense and what he did down the stretch.”
Duke’s ironclad defense offset its shooting woes, holding the Red Raiders to just 11-of-32 from the field in the second half and without a field goal for the final 6:22, leading to Krzyzewski being effusive with his praise for Jones on the defensive end of the ball also — and putting Jones in some rarefied Duke Blue skies.
“He did a hell of a job, as good on the ball [defensively] as we’ve had, right with Amaker, Hurley, Wojo, Duhon,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s right there and, tonight, maybe better.”
Krzyzewski did not stop with the comparisons, mentioning Jones and his on-court leadership abilities on a par with some of the NBA’s best, including those that Coach K has led in international competition to world championships and gold medals.
“It’s like coaching on the U.S. team, you have LeBron, Chris Paul, they make real-time [adjustments]. There aren’t many who can get their teams to do that. Tre can do that. He’s got it,” Krzyzewski said. “What he did tonight was one of the best performances. It was a big, big time performance by that kid.”
It was evident that coming through on the big stage of Madison Square Garden, as well as the stiff competition put up by one of the few remaining undefeated teams in Division 1 coming into today in the Red Raiders, made Krzyzewski glow about his young team that starts four freshmen. Williamson’s freakish athletic ability was all that was advertised in going for 17 points and 13 rebounds before fouling out. Included in those 13 rebounds was a sequence midway through the second half when he grabbed three offensive rebounds in a row before drawing a foul, giving the Blue Devils, down five at the time, an initial spark in making a coming back in the second half.
Like everyone who has come across Williamson’s skill set, Krzyzewski is left in awe by the uniqueness of his game, and the coach stresses that mentoring a once-in-a-lifetime talent is more of an opportunity than it is a challenge.
“Imagine if you’re doing one of these Broadway shows and all of a sudden, you found a singer and a dancer and [said to yourself], ‘Holy mackerel?,'” Kyzyzewski said. “It makes you think that I got to get better. I got to figure this out. That’s exciting. Coaching him is all exciting. Besides that, he’s a great kid. I thought he really showed his competitiveness at the highest level in these multiple plays where he got the rebounds.”
Outside of a genuine love and appreciation for the young men, the reason Krzyzewski could not stop gushing over his talented team this season is because he only will have one shot with this core of players to win a national championship, with the four freshmen who started tonight all likely heading to the pros once March Madness ends. Whether they cut down the nets in Minneapolis in April or have their season end just short of a championship like other talented Duke teams of the recent past made up of one-and-done talent, Coach K already knows that this iteration of the Blue Devils is a special group.
“I love my guys,” Krzyzewski said. “We only have them for a little bit, but I really love this team. These kids, they got something really good.”