NEW YORK — Tuesday marked the start of Mike Krzyzewski’s farewell tour. Tuesday also marked the beginning of Paolo Banchero’s aspiration to be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draw.
But by the end of Duke’s 79-71 win over #10 Kentucky, the biggest storyline to come out of Madison Square Garden was freshman security guard Trevor Keels, who stole the show by 25 points by leading the Blue Devils to a season. opening profit.
Keels, a physical 6-foot-4 combo guard, dominated the first eight minutes of the second half as Banchero sat in the locker room with cramps, then helped the Blue Devils seal the game in the final few minutes.
“I knew when P left, someone had to get up, and that’s what I did,” Keels said. “I kept looking at the score and I just made sure we were ahead and we were winning. That’s something I look at all the time. I don’t really care about my points or anything like that. [caring whether] we’ll come out with the win.”
The build-up to the second game of Tuesday evening’s Champions Classic doubleheader was mainly focused on Krzyzewski. He was honored during halftime of the Kansas-Michigan State opener, and a conversation with John Calipari, Tom Izzo and Bill Self discussing their favorite Krzyzewski memories played on the MSG video board during halftime of the second game.
Once the game was tipped, it was all about Banchero. Banchero, a top three recruit currently projected by ESPN as the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft, has an offensive arsenal rarely seen in college basketball. He is 6-foot-10, 250 pounds, but can handle the ball, hit the open jumpers from the top of the key and score around the basket. He also consistently absorbs contact and hits the free-throw line with regularity.
Despite time constraints, he still finished with 22 points and seven rebounds and shot 7-for-11 from the field.
“He’s a special player and you can coach him hard,” said Krzyzewski. “But he will get better and better. He is the real deal. There is no doubt about it.”
Perhaps the only weaknesses in Banchero’s game Tuesday night were the cramps that flared up early in the second half, forcing him into the locker room to get an IV. According to Krzyzewski, Banchero was one of four Duke players to experience cramps, with star freshman and Wendell Moore Jr. needed both IVs.
When Banchero was knocked out and went to the locker room less than three minutes into the second half, Kentucky had wiped Duke’s lead and was one ahead. The Wildcats had momentum and Duke was without his best player.
Eight minutes later, Duke led 15.
Keels took the lead – something he calls “Keel Mode” – scored 12 points in a 24-8 run that gave the Blue Devils control on their way down. After Kentucky responded with an 11-0 run to narrow Duke’s lead to four, Keels laid up to stop the run and hit another shot 90 seconds later to extend the Blue Devils’ lead to 11 and effectively end the game.
He finished with 25 points on 10-for-18 shooting, also provided two assists and made three steals.
“This kid here is going to be a great player,” said Krzyzewski. “He’s not a good player. Trevor is a great player. He weighs 230 pounds, and if he were a running back he would know how to pick holes. He gets dirty. He doesn’t charge much because he’s so low and has great body control. For three years he was probably the best player in the DC area.”
In stark contrast to previous freshman-heavy seasons under Calipari, Kentucky relied heavily on veterans against Duke. For long stretches in the second half, the Wildcats had a lineup of five transfers. Of the top seven players in minutes played, only one was a freshman: TyTy Washington, who struggled to finish on the offensive side.
However, two newcomers – transfers Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia) and Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia) – kept Kentucky competitive. Wheeler was dynamic in the first half, painting at will and finding teammates for open shots or killing himself. Tshiebwe was a force on both ends of the floor, finishing with 17 points, 19 rebounds – including 12 on the offensive side – and two blocks.
But the Wildcats will need their other stars to play consistently if they want to stay in the top 10 nationally.
“I said their two top-five players played like top-five players,” Calipari said, referring to Banchero and Keels. “If you want to be them now, raise your game.”
With Duke’s two big players leading the way, the Blue Devils ceiling could have been raised on Tuesday night. After last season’s disappointing 13-11 campaign, questions arose about the team’s potential at the start of the season. Inexperience and lack of depth, especially on the edge, were two big ones.
And while the team didn’t look perfect against Kentucky — the Blue Devils went 1-for-13 from a three-point range, for instance — Banchero and Keels instilled some serious optimism for Krzyzewski’s final hurray.
Even if Krzyzewski doesn’t want to admit it yet.
“I reminded them that they are 1-0,” he said. “It’s a long season.”