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Duke men's basketball set for the spotlight in 2K Empire Classic

<p>Cassius Stanley stepped up in his Madison Square Garden debut Nov. 5.</p>

Cassius Stanley stepped up in his Madison Square Garden debut Nov. 5.

There’s no place quite like Manhattan as the holiday season approaches. Luckily for Duke, the Blue Devils will return to New York after a two-week stint in Durham. 

Duke’s last trip to New York was quite successful—the then-No. 4 Blue Devils took down then-No. 3 Kansas 68-66 at Madison Square Garden Nov. 5 thanks to the guard tandem of Tre Jones and Cassius Stanley.  

This time around at Madison Square Garden, No. 1 Duke will take part in the 2K Empire Classic, opening play against California Thursday at 9 p.m., playing either Georgetown or No. 22 Texas Friday evening depending on the outcome of Thursday’s tournament contests. Though the stakes may not be quite as high for the Blue Devils as they were for their top-five matchup against the Jayhawks, staying motivated is not a concern when playing at Madison Square Garden. 

“I’m not gonna shortchange our arena, Cameron [Indoor Stadium], but [Madison Square Garden] is the one I love to play in after Cameron,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the Kansas game about Madison Square Garden. “The balls bounce different, the noise. There’s just something about this place. I’ve now coached over 50 games in here, I’ve coached a hell of a lot more in Cameron. Eventually when I stop coaching, I’ll look back at the times here as very special times in New York.” 

Krzyzewski was not the only one to beam about Madison Square Garden’s mystique. In his first-ever game in a Blue Devil uniform, Stanley seemed to only improve as the lights got brighter, scoring 11 of his 13 points against the Jayhawks in the second half. 

Stanley will certainly welcome the added attention that a venue like Madison Square Garden brings. After all, the Los Angeles native is used to having celebrities like Kendall Jenner cheering him on.

“[Madison Square Garden] was rocking. It was amazing,” Stanley said following the Kansas game. “That’s what you look for. I was at the free throw [line] and I looked and just realized…sold out. The amount of people that have sold out [Madison Square Garden], that’s amazing.” 

While Stanley is coming off his worst game of his young career, shooting just 2-for-12 from the field against Georgia State last Friday, his partner in crime against the Jayhawks is looking to stay in the flames. Jones scored a career-best 31 points against the Panthers, firmly looking like someone who can shoulder the scoring load for the Blue Devils (4-0).  

Even though Jones’ offense was the story against Georgia State, his swarming defense may be the key against the Golden Bears (4-0). Jones and the rest of the Duke defense are among the nation’s best at forcing turnovers, while California ranks in the bottom half in terms of giveaways. Golden Bear guards Matt Bradley and Joel Brown may be on fire from outside, with a scorching 15-for-27 combined mark on 3-pointers, but the guard duo also averages more than five turnovers a game, a surefire problem against the Blue Devil ball-hawking guards. 

Assuming Duke gets past California Thursday, it will play the winner of the matchup between Georgetown (3-1) and Texas (4-0) in the 2K Empire Classic Friday at 7 p.m. If the Blue Devils fall to the Golden Bears, they will take on the loser of the Hoyas-Longhorns game Friday at 5 p.m. 

Texas and Georgetown profile very differently, which could make for some interesting rotation decisions from Krzyzewski. Only six Longhorns average more than 10 minutes per game, with just one of those players weighing more than 200 pounds and none standing taller than 6-foot-9.  

On the other hand, the Hoyas’ offense runs through 7-foot, 264-pound center Omer Yurtseven, who is averaging 17.0 points and 12.5 rebounds per game this season. The North Carolina State transfer torched Duke in the Wolfpack’s 2018 upset of the Blue Devils, as Yurtseven put up a team-high 16 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in the contest. 

Regardless of who the Blue Devils match up with, the goal for Jones and company remains the same. 

“I expect the same from this team, being extremely hungry still,” Jones said following Duke’s win against Georgia State last Friday. “No matter what happens, we start off the week extremely hungry, going up there with one goal in mind: to come back with two wins and to continue to grow on defense and offense.”

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