Friday night was a celebration of last year’s national championship season—but also the beginning of a new one.
During the second annual Countdown to Craziness, the Blue Devils unveiled their fourth national championship banner in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium as Queen’s “We Are The Champions” filled the arena.
Senior Nolan Smith, a captain of this season’s squad, sang along in earnest and later called it a “special, special night.”
“Having some of my old teammates from last year back—it was just very special getting our [national champion] rings,” he said. “And then, just getting last year behind us, starting this year fresh with this team. From here on out, we’re not thinking about repeating or defending anything.”
For Duke, it is indeed a new season, complete with many new faces. Although seniors from the championship team—including Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas, Jordan Davidson and Steve Johnson—were watching from the stands, all eyes were on freshman point guard Kyrie Irving.
And from the very start of the Blue-White Scrimmage, once the dance moves were completed, Miles Plumlee’s unicycle put away and the warm-up jerseys off, Irving certainly did not disappoint. On the first play of the night, off the opening tip, the point guard stole the ball from Seth Curry and raced away, laying the ball in for two quick points. He was clearly in his element throughout the game, threading passes to his teammates seemingly with ease.
“Coming here was the best decision of my life, and finally I got my name called,” said Irving, who shed six pounds over the summer to boost his quickness. “I’m no longer a recruit. I’m a player at Duke University, so it felt great.”
During the first half, Irving put all his skills on display as part of the White squad, composed of the team’s projected starters. In addition to his quickness on both offense and defense, Irving showed off a smooth shooting stroke when he drained a step-back jumper over fellow freshman Tyler Thornton.
The most impressive aspect, though, of the newcomer’s game was his ability to find open teammates. Late in the first period, while leading a fast break, he let Ryan Kelly fly by underneath the hoop before flipping the ball over his right shoulder to Mason Plumlee, who finished with a dunk. In the second scrimmage, he teamed up with freshman Josh Hairston, who successfully converted Irving’s feeds into frequent layups to lead the team with 20 points after initially seeming rattled by the bright lights and thunderous cheers of Cameron.
“He’s incredible,” Hairston said of his new point guard. “There were so many times when I thought I was nowhere close to being open, I just looked down and the ball was in my hands.... I thanked [Kyrie] for every one of my points.”
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Irving finished 4-of-7 from the field with an impressive 11 points, 10 assists and three steals in 24 minutes. He helped the White Squad to a 26-20 victory in the first half, and after the teams swapped a few members at halftime, his seven assists spurred the Blue Squad to a 36-29 win.
The freshman was one of several Blue Devils to showcase his athleticism Friday. The Plumlee brothers frequently made plays above the rim and were the recipients of five lobs on the night. Mason Plumlee was close to having the play of the game when he went up for a slam on a 1-on-1 with his brother early in the second half, but the elder Plumlee got a piece of the ball—and a piece of Mason—sending the sophomore to the line.
The highlight reels continued with the dunk contest, when Irving, Andre Dawkins and both Plumlee brothers dazzled with their leaping ability and creativity. Dawkins brought in his younger brother to throw a pass, Mason Plumlee threw down two balls at once and senior Casey Peters lifted a rainbow kick to Miles Plumlee, eliciting the loudest ovation of the night since the presentation of the team’s rings.
Afterwards, one reporter asked Smith if he had his new ring on him. No, Smith said. They had already been put away in another room.
New team, new season.