Mike Krzyzewski stressed prior to the season that the Blue Devils would not have a go-to starting five due to the team’s 'balance.'
Two games into the season, Duke's head coach has stayed true to his word.
Junior Alex O’Connell replaced his classmate Jordan Goldwire in the starting lineup Friday night and quickly made his presence felt, scoring five of the team’s first 11 points and 14 overall as the No. 4 Blue Devils dominated Colorado State 89-55. With the victory, Duke has now won 38 consecutive home openers in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"That’s AO. He’s always been a fire-starter for us, he can get hot at any moment. This year, he’s just really doing a good job of hunting his shot and moving on to the next play if one doesn’t fall," captain Javin DeLaurier said. "I think that’s really helped his game grow and hopefully he can continue to do that for us."
The Blue Devils (2-0) quickly jumped out to a 11-3 lead, taking advantage of a trio of Rams turnovers with a pair of O’Connell makes. Colorado State (1-1) promptly punched back with a 7-0 run of its own to bring the score back within one, but Duke would not falter.
The Blue Devils used efficient offense—shooting 55 percent in the opening half—to maintain a two-possession advantage for much of the half, but O’Connell would provide the spark once again. A made triple from the Roswell, Ga., native with 2:10 remaining sparked a deciding 10-0 run to end the opening period as Duke entered the locker room with a 16-point edge at 42-26.
"I’ve seen it first hand how hot he can get," Blue Devil guard Cassius Stanley said of guarding O'Connell. "The country’s going to see how hot he can get later on in the season. I guarantee you he’s going to hit five, six, seven, eight threes in a game. I promise you."
O’Connell was inserted into the lineup following a valiant nine-point, three-steal effort against No. 3 Kansas in Tuesday’s season-opening victory, with Krzyzewski opting for offense over defense against the Rams. Goldwire played just two first-half minutes in Friday’s matchup.
"[O’Connell] is a hell of an athlete. He’s putting it together. He’s being strong," Krzyzewski said. "He made a great pass in the second half, too, right along the baseline. He’s just playing strong, he’s not just shooting. He’s the guy on our team that we need all of a sudden—boom boom—he can get points up."
Coming out of the locker room, the Blue Devils continued to demonstrate that this year’s iteration is unlike the freshman-dominated teams of the few seasons. Sophomore Tre Jones built upon an efficient first half with a pair of layups, as Duke stretched the lead past 30 with a 25-9 run early in the second half and would never look back.
After an inefficient 5-for-14 effort against the Jayhawks, Jones found his rhythm as the focal point of the Blue Devil offense. Duke’s floor-general had his midrange shot falling as he converted seven of his 14 attempts in the contest for 15 points. The Apple Valley, Minn., native did not only create for himself, however, adding seven assists—coupled with just one turnover—in the win.
Jones and O’Connell were only two of the five Blue Devils in double-figures. Freshmen Cassius Stanley, Vernon Carey Jr. and Wendell Moore followed suit with respective 19, 11 and 10-point performances.
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"None of them are in complementary roles. Like when you’re playing with Zion [Williamson] and R.J. [Barrett], [Marvin] Bagley and [Wendell] Carter, [Jayson] Tatum, with this group—now that’s not bad, I don’t mind coaching those guys—but it puts a ceiling on how much a kid can do," Krzyzewski said. "It’s like a musical. When you have two guys like that, they sing most of the songs and have all the dances. With this, ours is more like a cabaret. It’s, okay, knock our socks off with how you’re doing it. That’s why I said it’s more of an old-school [team], it’s built on defense."
While the Blue Devils connected on 53.6 percent of their attempts Friday, Duke has yet to prove that it is a better perimeter shooting team than last season. A strong defensive effort and domination inside—the Rams were outscored 56-22 in the paint—masked the Blue Devils abysmal 4-for-22 perimeter performance.
Duke will look to continue its strong start to the season Tuesday when the Blue Devils host Central Arkansas as part of the on-campus round of the 2K Empire Classic.