NEW YORK — The rules of basketball stipulate that, at the end of every game, one team has to score more points than the other team. There are no ties, which means, by definition, someone had to win on Tuesday night in the Garden, even if No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Duke spent 40 minutes playing like neither of them were capable of such a monumental feat.
When the final buzzer sounded, Duke had gotten the job done. Tre Jones scored the final six points for the Blue Devils, finishing with 15 on the night to go along with six boards, six assists and three steals in a 68-66 win in the opening game of the 2019 Champions Classic.
But it was far from a vintage Duke performance.
The Blue Devils shot 35.9 percent from the floor. They were 8-for-24 from three and 14-for-23 from the line. They turned the ball over on 20 percent of their possessions — 16 times in total. For a team that is just a year removed from the Zion and R.J. show, for a program that has become synonymous with the one-and-done era and NBA-ready talent, those are not the kind of performances that we’ve come to expect.
Especially when they result in wins over top five teams.
But that’s who this Duke team is going to be.
They are going to have to win ugly. They are going to win with their defense. This is what happens when the best player on your roster is Tre Jones. It’s what happens when you build a roster around a freshmen class that doesn’t have one of those elite freshmen.
“Zion and R.J., those freshmen weren’t freshmen,” Duke associate head coach Jon Scheyer said. “Wendell [Carter] and Marvin [Bagley III], they weren’t freshmen. Our freshmen are freshmen.”
The point that Scheyer is so eloquently making is that Duke doesn’t have a lottery level talent on their roster. “Even if one of these dudes ends up getting picked 14th, the point remains true,” one NBA front office member told NBC Sports, and if Tuesday night was any indication, that should work just fine.
It’s because of Jones.
“The difference maker for us was Tre,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “We have a lot of young guys and a lot of new guys but we’ve really tried to play good defense in our first 30 practices and it paid off tonight. We played really good defense and it starts off with that kid and the poise he had.”
This Duke team has embraced his identity. What Jones lacks in an NBA-ready jumper he makes up for with toughness, both mentally and on the defensive end of the floor. What he lacks in physical tools he makes up for in heart and intangibles. He’s one of those guys that you call a winner, one of those players that that others gravitate towards. The result is a roster that has fully embraced what he personifies.
“We are a hard, tough team,” Duke’s standout freshman Cassius Stanley said after the game. “It’s going to be ugly, coach said that, but it’s going to look good at the end. [Tonight] proved it to me.”
Stanley is a fitting player to point out here. He was the least-heralded member of Duke’s 2019 recruiting class, but an argument could be made that he had the biggest impact on Tuesday night. Stanley scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half, including a pair of thunderous dunks that killed the momentum Kansas had built early in the half. He wasn’t expected to start. He didn’t really start come on strong in practice until recently. But here he was, on the biggest stage college basketball has to offer this side of the postseason, dunking his way into going viral.
“Cassius would verbally come to me [during the game] saying different things, telling me to lead, telling me he’s following whatever I do,” Jones said.
Stanley wasn’t alone.
Matthew Hurt and Vernon Carey Jr. both had moments, finishing with 11 points apiece. Carey his a huge three when Duke was down by nine points early in the second half and Hurt hit a bigger three late in the period. Kansas was up 55-51 at the time, and after Jack White had intercepted a pass Ochai Agbaji made when it looked like the Jayhawks were going to get a layup on a 2-on-1 break, Hurt buried the three at the other end. He capped off a five-point swing.
But we knew they were capable of those things.
What I did not know they were capable of was this: Holding All-American center Udoka Azubuike to just eight points and nine boards on 3-for-4 shooting, an admirable job on one of the most dominant players in the sport. As a team, Duke forced Kansas into 27 turnovers, an astonishingly high number for a team that returns as much experience in their backcourt as anyone at the top of the polls. Every Kansas starter had at least three turnovers. Devon Dotson and Ochai Agbaji had five turnovers apiece. At one point late in the first half, Kansas had 18 turnovers and 17 field goals attempted.
This is how Duke is going to have to win this season.
This is what happens when the best player on the roster, the guy that sets the tone for everything they do during a game, is Jones.
“As a freshman last year, I was looking at older guys, trying to see what it really was like. Knowing that they’re going through the same thing, I know I always have to have a strong face. Doing the right thing so they know what to do.”
“We just have to stay locked in to what our strengths are,” Stanley said. “Defense, veteran leadership.
“This was no surprise.”