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No. 2 Duke men’s basketball seeks a new normal against Central Arkansas

Cassius Stanley was Duke's lowest-rated recruit, but so far he has been a slam dunk for the Blue Devils.
Cassius Stanley was Duke's lowest-rated recruit, but so far he has been a slam dunk for the Blue Devils.

Let’s be frank. The chances that unranked Central Arkansas takes down No. 2 Duke Tuesday evening are slim to none—and Slim just left the building. 

The Blue Devils’ real challenge Tuesday won’t be taking down a squad that lost to No. 16 Baylor by 45 points last week. Instead, Duke must focus on finding a rhythm to its game in its 7 p.m. matchup at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In the era of the one-and-done, head coach Mike Krzyzewski will somehow try to find a new normal with four veteran captains and four star freshmen at his disposal.

It doesn’t get any more ordinary than Central Arkansas. It was originally named the Arkansas State Normal School and is located in Conway, Ark., one of 19 cities named “Conway” in the country. The state’s “Bear State” nickname inspired the school to adopt the Bear as its official mascot. (While bears are fierce, they seem the safer choice as opposed to drawing from Arkansas’ more interesting reputation as the “Toothpick State,” where the toothpicks are double-edged daggers.)

Two early Central Arkansas professors wore a gray sweater and a purple scarf one day, a color combination so terrific they decided everyone at the school should wear it—thus, the school colors were chosen. The humble school has one notable alumnus to its name—Basketball Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen—but his heyday is long gone. The Bears finished 8-10 in a weak Southland Conference last year, but that doesn’t mean that Duke plans on being merciful Tuesday.

“Everyone’s ready to go and knows that they can contribute to winning, so obviously that translates to us just playing our ass off no matter the score, the time [or] where we’re playing,” senior captain Jack White said following the win against Colorado State.

This season, the Blue Devils are very different compared to both Central Arkansas (1-2) and past Duke teams. The Blue Devils (2-0) boast a particularly deep lineup of talented and experienced players, some NBA-bound. That fact has made the rotation especially volatile. Nine players recorded more than 10 minutes of floor time against Kansas, and 10 players saw 10 minutes or more against Colorado State.

“That is huge for us, having more guys that can do a lot more, and having balance throughout our team,” Duke sophomore point guard Tre Jones said. “Playing against that, you never know whose night it’s going to be for us.”

The system is such a stark change from the star-focused system necessary for once-in-a-lifetime talents like Zion Williamson that Krzyzewski has been forced to return to his coaching roots.

“I think one of the things I have to learn is how to sub,” Krzyzewski said. “The last few years, we had a starting five, and if one of them got in trouble, one guy would come off the bench. This is a little bit more old school, where you play more guys.”

Clearly, the legendary coach has not yet settled on a consistent rotation. Krzyzewski has varied the Blue Devils’ lineups greatly throughout their first two games. He swapped Jordan Goldwire for Alex O’Connell in the starting two-guard spot last Friday, and it paid off. O’Connell hit three long-range bombs, grabbed six rebounds and dished out three assists against Colorado State.

O’Connell’s performance could lead to even more time against a Central Arkansas team with few scoring threats outside of juniors Hayden Koval and DeAndre Jones. But then again, the Bears could surprise, calling for more Goldwire or defensive-minded freshman Wendell Moore. Central Arkansas only fell to Georgetown by 11 points last week, and Duke has let worse teams—like Division II champion Northwest Missouri State—play down to the wire this season.

What should be expected from the Blue Devils Tuesday? Duke’s new normal could be to expect the unexpected.

“I don’t want it to be so predictable because then everybody needs to be ready,” Krzyzewski said. “And you just might get something from a kid.”

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