It was a meaningless game. It wasn’t even a game, really, but rather an intrasquad scrimmage. Nobody won, and nobody lost.
Yet, Friday evening’s Countdown to Craziness was an incredibly meaningful game. For the first time since March 7, 2020, fans packed the stands in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devil sophomores finally played in front of the Cameron Crazies, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski got to witness his final Countdown to Craziness. And boy, was it a loud one.
"There's no way you can come out and be asleep," freshman forward Paolo Banchero said. "I wouldn't say there was pressure, but there were definitely some jitters, I'm not gonna lie."
Sophomores Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams played all of last year without fans in the stands. Friday evening saw a packed house—a real Cameron Indoor experience. Was it everything they expected when they committed to Duke?
"Everything and more," Roach said. "You really can't explain what that feeling is like. Whatever you're thinking it's going to be, it's going to be 10 times more energy."
The event certainly did not lack drama. After an earth-shaking intro video, the Blue Devils appeared out of the middle of the student section, parting it like the Red Sea—or rather the Blue Sea.
The team then divided itself into two and played a low-stakes scrimmage divided into two 12-minute games. There were only a handful of fouls called during the entire night. But the pomp and circumstance of Duke men’s basketball was back in a big way. Every dribble and every basket was met with a deafening response from the Cameron Crazies.
Countdown to Craziness also presented fans with the first opportunity to check out this year’s batch of freshmen. As many suspected, freshman forward Paolo Banchero looks to be the biggest threat in this year’s iteration of new Blue Devil ballers. A monstrous slam in the middle of the first period highlighted a terrific all-around showing from the potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Banchero showcased every aspect of his game Friday evening. He handled the ball at point, he dribbled the ball coast-to-coast, rebounded and played lockdown defense. The star freshman finished the second scrimmage with five points, three assists, and a steal.
"Paolo is always going to play his [butt] off," sophomore guard Jeremy Roach said. "The dude is 6-foot-10, 240 [pounds] and moves like a guard. He makes the game so much easier for me... and it's fun to watch."
In fairness, graduate transfer Bates Jones proved no Herculean task for Banchero. But opponents will still focus their gameplans on stopping Banchero.
After the first 12-minute period, Krzyzewski stepped onto the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium to deliver a brief speech to the crowd.
“This is not a farewell speech,” Krzyzewski said. “The thing that separates this place from all the others, is that you feel here. If you feel, then you own it.”
“This year is not about anything final, last, or sixth. It’s about this moment. This is the start of our journey…. It starts tonight.”
Freshman guard Trevor Keels showed his all-around ability, with a total of 12 points and three assists in the second game. He even dunked an alley-oop in the second mini-game. Jaylen Blakes looked comfortable handling the ball at point guard, even though Roach will likely get the lion’s share of playing time this season. AJ Griffin, the second big-name recruit, did not play with a sprained knee.
"The freshmen did great," sophomore center Mark Williams said. "They know what they're getting into."
The veterans looked strong, as expected. Sophomore center Mark Williams seemed more confident Friday, and graduate forward Theo John provides the kind of strong veteran big man presence that could help solidify Duke’s frontcourt if he stays healthy.
Wendell Moore Jr. and lone senior Joey Baker, named team captains earlier this week, played rather well. They will likely play more of a leadership role this year.
In addition to a return to normal, Countdown to Craziness played a key role in recruiting. Head-coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer did not coach either squad, opting instead to sit with recruits Dariq Whitehead, Mark Mitchell, and Dereck Lively. Whitehead and Lively are both committed already, but Mitchell's recruitment is still open.
An internal scrimmage is a poor test of Duke’s mettle. Fans won’t have to wait long to see the team in action against real opponents. The Blue Devils take on Winston-Salem State in an exhibition matchup Oct. 30 and begin their regular season Nov. 9 against Kentucky in Madison Square Garden.
Friday’s event may not have meant much in the grand scheme of things. No intrasquad exhibition matchup ever does. But at this moment—the first basketball event of Coach K’s last year—I beg to differ.
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