HOUSTON—The similarities between No. 1 seed Duke and No. 2 seed Gonzaga are plentiful. That is just another reason why there is so much intrigue in the South Regional Championship game that will take place Sunday evening.
Duke and Gonzaga both had sustained success all season, as Bulldogs head coach Mark Few pointed out in his press conference before the Elite Eight matchup. Both teams feature their respective conference's player of the year—Kevin Pangos in the WCC and Jahlil Okafor in the ACC. Both teams boast dangerous backcourts who have an uncanny comfort level with one another.
But most of all, both teams are made up of newcomers.
Gonzaga's leading scorer, forward Kyle Wiltjer, is a transfer from Kentucky. Its leading rebounder, Domantas Sabonis, is just a freshman. Byron Wesley starts for the Bulldogs and is in his first year in Spokane after beginning his college career at Southern California. Eric McClellan transferred from Vanderbilt and Silas Melson is also a rookie. Those five players combined for 43.7 percent of the team's minutes this season and 51.3 percent of the team's scoring.
On the other end of the floor, Duke had to integrate four freshmen into the fold this season in Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen. Three of those players have been starters all season, and the foursome has combined for 49.5 percent of the Blue Devils' minutes and 55.9 percent of the team's scoring.
When considering how much of each team's success has been predicated on the play of people who had little to no familiarity with the program before the season, their results to date are pretty staggering.
"To me it's been one of the most unique years I've had at Duke in 35 years, to have these young guys do what they've done and to put us in a position to play for a Regional Championship," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
For Duke, the camaraderie between the players stems from their captain, Quinn Cook, who made sure that the freshmen would be prepared by the time the games started counting in November. During the summer, Cook made sure to keep in touch with all of the freshmen and would routinely take them under his wing and get up extra shots with the youngsters. He cared for and prepared the new recruiting class so well that the Blue Devils don't even consider their neophytes to be freshmen anymore.
"They're very poised," Krzyzewski said. "They're very mature. And they're great guys, and they're all about what we're doing."
The Bulldogs didn't have the problem of having to teach freshmen how to be collegiate players for the most part, but did have the issue of integrating new blood thanks to all of the transfers. Just like Duke, Gonzaga relied on its captain and floor general, as Pangos lobbied the coaching staff to organize a retreat to help team unity.
"That retreat, it was something I talked to the coaches about," Pangos explained. "I thought it was important for—we had so many new guys, an opportunity for us to get away from any distraction on campus or friends or girlfriends or anything and get to know each other, talk about what the season was going to have in store for us and what our goals were. And I think it was a great opportunity and we really bonded from it and got our mindset right."
Just like with Duke, the team-building worked, creating a tight-knit group of players, who would go to battle for one another. That is how Gonzaga has managed to pull off a 35-2 record to date.
"This is one of the closest groups I've ever been on," said Wiltjer, who won a national championship with Kentucky two years ago. "To play on this team, it's been so much fun."
The togetherness that has propelled both Duke and Gonzaga all season will be paramount in deciding which team gets the chance to keep dancing and play in the Final Four. Both teams know perfectly well that when the bright lights are on, and the pressure is mounting, it takes an entire team to persevere.
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