A fourth-ranked Duke squad should not lose to a Division II team, national champion or not. Only one thing could have stopped the Blue Devils on their way to a scot-free victory in their exhibition debut: themselves.
And they almost did.
In what should have been a de facto dunk contest, nearly all of Duke’s star freshmen floundered. Frayed nerves hindered the offense throughout the game, allowing Northwest Missouri State to trim an 18-point deficit to six and nearly stun the basketball world.
“They expected dunks, high fives and all that,” Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Then, ‘Oh, these guys we’re playing against—they're really good.’ That wasn't in their dream.”
Saturday was far from a fantasy. Duke’s freshmen shot themselves in the foot with silly mistakes under a seemingly harsh spotlight. Freshman forward Wendell Moore shot just 2-for-11 on the night. Freshman guard Cassius Stanley tallied just seven points, one rebound and no assists in 21 minutes. Freshman center Vernon Carey converted one field goal, turned the ball over four times and committed three fouls in 10 minutes. Krzyzewski was forced to constrict Carey’s floor time, as the 6-foot-10 newbie looked ill-equipped to defend the Bearcats’ pace-and-space offense.
Forward Matthew Hurt was the only first-year player to play as advertised. The Rochester, Minn., native scored 17 points on 8-for-16 shooting, the only player besides sophomore point guard Tre Jones to reach double digits.
Yet, even Hurt faced some struggles against the Division II champs. He missed a point-blank layup early in the second half, leading him to blush alongside the Cameron Crazies. In the final three minutes, Hurt botched another layup and missed a crunch-time free throw, a key misstep as the Bearcats whittled down Duke’s lead.
Something clearly caused the freshmen to collapse. Was it nerves? Quite possibly.
“Oh, yeah, I think I was definitely nervous,” Stanley said. “Some of the other freshmen were nervous. Having older guys like Tre, Jack [White], Javin [DeLaurier], Jordan [Goldwire], everybody who has played in Cameron—that definitely helped.”
Despite the veteran presence, something still bothered the younger Blue Devils. Duke committed three offensive fouls in the opening five minutes. Other errors abounded, as Hurt badly missed several layups, Moore airballed a three-pointer and Carey Jr. threw a pass to Jack White into the bleachers.
Like the rest of the team, the freshmen fell short from long range. They combined for 1-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc, as part of a 2-of-16 night from the team at large. Stanley recorded one of those makes; the other came from Justin Robinson, who played for only five brief, albeit exquisite, minutes.
White, a senior forward and captain, has long since acclimated to the roars of Cameron Indoor Stadium. White and fellow captain Javin DeLaurier have been mentoring the new big men, Hurt and Carey, but clearly have a long road ahead of them.
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“One thing that I'll especially try to emphasize with the younger bigs is ‘next play,’” White said. “Once they work that out themselves, their ability to impact multiple plays in a sequence, that's when you're really going to [know] how much these guys can really impact the game.”
One man used to seeing stage fright in Cameron Indoor Stadium was Krzyzewski, now in his 40th season as head coach. After the game, he didn’t seem too concerned about the freshmen’s underperformance.
“For a young player [especially], you can't beat yourself up,” Krzyzewski said. “You have to be your biggest fan. You know, when you miss a shot, it can't be the end of the world.”
It’s certainly not the end of the season. The Blue Devils take on Fort Valley State, a Division II bottom-dweller, Wednesday night. The mascot won’t change much, from a Bearcat to a Wildcat, and the venue is the same. Those hot, bright lights will again shine on the freshmen and those same chants will again ring in their ears. It’s a formidable learning curve.
Krzyzewski relied on his veterans to carry the team to victory Saturday, taking out Carey for long stretches. As young players adapt to the trappings of Duke basketball fame, Krzyzewski may have to keep leaning on his veterans. But for a 72-year-old man like Coach K, he probably holds no grudges against the more elderly faction of his team.