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Newcomers make their mark for Duke men's basketball against Florida Southern

<p>Freshman Luke Kennard notched 14 points, but shot just 5-of-14 from the field Friday.</p>

Freshman Luke Kennard notched 14 points, but shot just 5-of-14 from the field Friday.

With more than half of its roster made up of freshmen and sophomores, Duke will be relying on its youth quite a bit this season.

Judging by the team’s performance in an exhibition Friday against Florida Southern, expect the Blue Devils’ youngsters to have their ups and downs during the early part of the year.

The Blue Devils cruised past the Moccasins 112-68 in a dominant performance at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke blitzed the reigning Division II champions by scoring the first 10 points of the contest and did not look back en route to an easy victory.

“It was good to play against a team of champions and their kids play really hard,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We had a lot of young guys and it’s the first time for Brandon [Ingram] and Luke [Kennard] and Derryck [Thornton] and all these guys. Overall, I thought they did well.”

Although the stakes were not high, the Blue Devils came out with energy that paralleled that of a mid-February conference clash. A pair of jump-hooks in the paint by the always-amped Marshall Plumlee along with two 3-pointers by junior Matt Jones set the tone to begin the game. With the elder statesmen leading the way, Duke’s freshmen worked off their pregame jitters and gained confidence as the game progressed.

Perhaps no player exuded more confidence on the floor than Blue Devil point guard Derryck Thornton—who finished as the team’s leading scorer with 22 points coming off the. After starting slow, the Chatsworth, Calif., native burst onto the scene toward the end of the first half and showcased his smooth handle on multiple occasions. By the middle of the second half, any sort of pregame nerves for Thornton were replaced by an ear-to-ear grin and the look of a young floor general soaking up every moment of excitement on the court.

“I love my guys and I’ve just grown very close to them,” Thornton said. “Today was my first day trying to really express all my feelings and with all the fans there—that pumps you up as well.”

Thornton’s energy proved contagious. In addition to a testy first half exchange between sophomore Grayson Allen and Florida Southern’s Sheldon Zablotny, freshman Luke Kennard went soaring into the student section after a loose ball with his team leading by 42 points. The team’s intensity also translated to bench players Chase Jeter and Sean Obi, who both made hustle plays in the second half.

“I think during the night, when we had the shaky runs, when they kind of caught up to us a little bit, we kind of took plays off,” Kennard said. “Once we play every play our hardest, then it’s going to be good, it’s going to be a good time.”

But Duke’s youth did show in certain aspects of the game, particularly in a first-half stretch that saw the Moccasins cut the Blue Devils' early 15-2 lead all the way down to four.

On offense, Duke stalled when forced to play in the half-court due to its struggles communicating on the defensive side of the ball and gave up four 3-pointers during a five minute stretch. The combination of the two produced an uninspiring stretch of basketball for the Blue Devils and had Florida Southern believing they could stay in the game on the road against the defending national champions.

“Your offense can help your defense during that time and our offense was hurting our defense because it was an unpredictable shot and therefore you have less of a chance to come back on good transition defense,” Krzyzewski said.

The newcomers’ performance Friday illustrated a Duke team that has been molded by the influence of a trio of former role players in Allen, Plumlee and Amile Jefferson, who know the importance of bringing energy on every possession of every game. But channeling that exuberant youthfulness and staying smart at the same time will be another challenge for the Blue Devils and could get increasingly difficult as expectations rise and the team faces tougher competition.

Although games may not count as wins and losses for another couple of weeks, the Blue Devil veterans set the tone for a team that may have to be scrappier than the NCAA title-winning squad a year ago. 


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