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‘Evolution’ phase over for Krzyzewski’s team

If there has been a theme in Duke’s season to this point, it has been evolution. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has used the word on multiple occasions—the starting lineup is evolving, players individually are evolving and the team as a whole is evolving. The coaches have tried a number of different combinations, and through all of it, a question has remained—who will lead?

After an uninspired second half against St. John’s Sunday that saw the Red Storm score nearly 50 points, the Blue Devils showed Thursday that they might have an answer to that question. Oddly enough, though, the answer might be no one. And they showed against Virginia Tech why that just might work.

All nine players that took the floor against the Hokies scored, and the focus on a well-rounded court presence was evident from the start. In search of team-oriented play, Krzyzewski inserted Josh Hairston into the starting lineup as the “best communicator [among] the bigs.” Team defense came through when momentum began swinging Virginia Tech’s way, allowing Duke to run away with the game. And the players’ emotion showed through in new ways in front of a raucous Cassell Coliseum crowd, an arena where they fell 64-60 last year.

Sparks flew from the start, as the officials whistled 13 fouls in the first eight minutes. Tensions peaked at the end of that opening stretch, when Duke guard Andre Dawkins and Hokie guard Dorenzo Hudson had a heated chest-to-chest exchange under the Virginia Tech basket. They were quickly joined by their teammates, and then by the referees, who took the time to warn both teams.

“[Hudson] was chirping a little bit to one of my guys,” Dawkins said. “He kind of grabbed Quinn by the arm, and I just had to protect my teammate.”

The officials made good on their warning on the ensuing possession, as Dawkins drained a 3-pointer and then was slapped with a technical foul for continuing to talk to Hudson after the make.

“When Andre got the tech, he looked at the bench and was like, ‘Come on.’ We’re in this together,” freshman Quinn Cook said. “’Dre definitely turned it up a notch and it helped everybody.”

Dawkins’ defense of his teammate was just one example of the emotion the Blue Devils wanted to show a game after nearly giving away a 22-point lead against St. John’s.

“Tonight we really wanted to fight together…. We wanted to play with emotion,” Dawkins said. “We felt like our last game [against St. John’s], in the second half, we played without any emotion. And we wanted to turn that around.”

The locker room sounded more united than it has all season, and that showed against the Hokies, especially on the defensive end. Following the technical foul on Dawkins, Virginia Tech managed to get to the line eight times in the next seven minutes. They shot just six the rest of the game as Duke stepped up its defensive intensity.

“After [Tyler Thornton’s foul on Erick Green with 4:54 left in the first half], we played really good defense and didn’t put them on the line,” Krzyzewski said. “And it was danger time because it’s a double bonus, so that’s a mature thing.”

That was not the only time Krzyzewski referred to his team as “mature,” which is a relatively new word to be used in describing the Blue Devils. His other reference came when he mentioned how the players have agreed to stop using social media for the remainder of the season.

“Instead of a Twitter family or whatever,” Krzyzewski said, “it’s better to concentrate on our family…. I think that’s a mature decision on their part.”

For a team that certainly does not lack the talent to compete on the national stage, a dose of unity and maturity may be just what is needed to end the squad’s “evolution” phase. Thursday in Blacksburg, Duke showed both. The open question about leadership in the wake of Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler’s graduations may finally be getting an answer, and one of the team’s veterans recognizes it. When one Duke player stood up to defend another, it affected the whole team, according to Ryan Kelly.

“[The intensity] did ratchet up a lot, to another level. We had been doing a good job, but right then it got pretty emotional and guys stepped up. And that’s what we need.”

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