Duke regrouped from Tuesday night’s loss to No. 3 Kansas in the Champions Classic by winning back-to-back games over Penn State and No. 21 Rhode Island, capturing the Hall of Fame Tip-Off title on Sunday afternoon at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
The top-ranked Blue Devils were on upset alert in the championship game against the Rams. If you tuned if after halftime, you’d be shocked by the 10-of-32 (3-of-14 from three) the Blue Devils shot through the first 20 minutes. In the second half, Duke torched the Rams defense with a crisp offensive execution led by sophomore Luke Kennard, who finished with a game-high 24 points. The 6-foot-5 guard opened the half with a drive to the basket for an uncontested lay-in. He then punished a Rhody defender for going under a screen, sinking a three from the top of the key. While it always felt like the Rams had one more run in them, they never cut it to single digits.
Duke shot 17-of-27 from the field in the second half.
Aside from Kennard’s offensive showcase, Amile Jefferson, the redshirt senior who was granted a fifth year of eligibilty, anchored the undermanned frontline, posting 17 and 15 rebounds. He notched his first double-double of the season before the midway point of the second half.
This weekend was a bounce-back performance for the Blue Devils after losing their first game of the season to the title-contending Jayhawks. It also put the rest of the nation on notice.
Duke without three potential starters — Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden — and with a limited Grayson Allen, who was battling a toe injury he suffered the previous day, defeated a ranked opponent on a neutral floor by double figures.
Imagine Duke at full strength.
One of the major questions for Duke this season was the point guard play, as Mike Krzyzewski fielded a team without a true floor general. But offensive execution, like the one on Sunday afternoon, minimizes that concern. Injuries, and whether or not Duke could overcome them, has been another question. Of course, the Blue Devils would love to have three potential lottery picks on the floor. But their absences have had their benefits. Without Tatum, Kennard has been thrown into a big role and he has certainly answered the call. The sophomore is shooting 55 percent from the field and 56 percent from three.
The question now is how will his role change when Tatum returns to the lineup.
Minutes and touches will be something Coach K will have to juggle, but that’s as good of a problem a coach can have.