Duke will have to grow up fast if they’re going to see Coach K off with a title

GREENVILLE, SC — If Mike Krzyzewski’s last Duke team doesn’t win the national title, college basketball fans will quickly see why. They will say that this was a classic case of youth being wasted on youth.

Funny how this all turned out. Coach K is dropping out of the game because he’s 75 and ready to embrace the normal lifestyle of a grandfather, and yet his Blue Devils are considered vulnerable because teenagers will remain teenagers. Freshmen stay freshmen.

children will be children.

“I think some things we can take advantage of, just our maturity,” said Damari Milstead of Cal State Fullerton, the long-shot school Duke played Friday night. “Duke is a super, super talented group but they are inexperienced. … I think our maturity and balance and just our togetherness as a program and how long we’ve been together are some things that we can really capitalize on.”

Exploit? Has an older, more mature 15th seed actually suggested for the record that his second-seeded opponent — America’s signature college basketball program — is just sitting there, ready to be exposed?

hey, St. Peter just beat Kentuckyto the right?

Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin
Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin
Getty Images (2)

The truth is Milstead only said what a lot of people think. Duke has no NCAA tournament experience — aside from Krzyzewski’s previous 35 trips to The Dance, of course. So something has to change for the Blue Devils to win the whole thing. They have to grow old together and quickly.

More than four months ago, I sat in Madison Square Garden as Duke completely outplayed Kentucky and looked a lot like the best team in the nation. Nobody talked much that night about the Blue Devils’ youth or the night they beat Gonzaga for their seventh straight win.

But they haven’t been the same since their two-week COVID vacation break over the holidays, eventually losing three home games to lower-skill ACC teams (Miami, Virginia and North Carolina). the Carolina’s loss was understandablegiven that the Duke players were under as much pressure to give Coach K his proper send-off from Cameron Indoor Stadium as any college basketball team has ever faced in a regular-season game.

And yet the Blue Devils still couldn’t win three straight games in Brooklyn after getting rid of Cameron. she were badly outplayed by a Virginia Tech team with a roster that, pound for pound, Dukes can’t touch.

Freshmen Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin are sure to be among the top 10 picks in June’s NBA draft. Classmate Trevor Keels and sophomore Mark Williams are also expected to go into the first round. Wendell Moore Jr. still has a shot at making it a first-round fab five.

Pairing that kind of firepower with arguably the greatest college basketball coach of all time should create a deadly national championship threat. And yet, many people who are interested in such things didn’t even think that Duke deserved a runner-up finish in this tournament. These folks have watched the Blue Devils enough to know that they haven’t inspired the kind of confidence Krzyzewski’s five title teams have inspired.

So yes, something has to change this weekend here in Greenville. For one, Duke needs to start playing better defense, which was the focus of some spirited drills before the tournament. “This week was more about reinforcing our good habits,” Krzyzewski said on Thursday.

For two, Banchero needs to be ultra-aggressive 24/7 and avoid the 10- and 15-minute vanish acts that popped up here and there throughout the regular season.

For three, Griffin, Archbishop Stepinac’s former five-star contender at White Plains, must also attack the moment with a ferocity that defines the player he’s long emulated – Jimmy Butler. At 6’6 and 222 pounds, Griffin is a lights-out perimeter shooter with a 7′ wingspan, springy athleticism and an attitude rarely seen in an 18-year-old on the game’s biggest stage.

“He’s never nervous,” Krzyzewski said of him.

Griffin overcame a knee injury from the previous season to more or less honor his lead, scoring 27 in North Carolina and picking up 20 road wins over Wake Forest, Louisville and Syracuse and then dropping 21 in Miami in the ACC Tournament semifinals. Griffin shot 46.7 percent from 3-point range for the year.

The negatives? Griffin has only caught 45 free throws in 34 games and sometimes has to find other ways to influence the game.

That’s okay. His high school coach, Pat Massaroni, still regularly hears from NBA teams who are interested in doing as much homework on Griffin as possible.

“I can see that AJ is one of the best shooters we’ve seen in the NBA in a long time,” Massaroni said. “His game will evolve. … I don’t think AJ fully understands how good he can be.”

Griffin needs to understand that now, along with Banchero and the rest of the Blue Devils. Duke watched what happened to Kentucky on Thursday night. It was just another reminder that March waits for no one. Duke will have to grow up fast if they’re going to see Coach K off with a title


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