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What have we learned about Duke men's basketball in its first six games?

Freshman phenom Paolo Banchero posted 28 points, eight rebounds and six assists against The Citadel.
Freshman phenom Paolo Banchero posted 28 points, eight rebounds and six assists against The Citadel.

Six games, six wins. 

Duke won again Monday night, pulling away from The Citadel in the second half of a rapid-fire affair for a 107-81 win on its home court. Complete with another do-it-all performance from Wendell Moore Jr., a highly-anticipated scoring clinic by Paolo Banchero and plenty of other strong showings up and down the roster, Monday night’s win saw the Blue Devils pass another early-season trial ahead of Friday night’s looming top-five test against No. 1 Gonzaga. Duke’s young roster continues to mesh and players are still visibly settling into their roles, but it feels as if there is little more you could ask out of this team from its opening stretch.

“I do think we’re playing good defense. The offense takes longer with so many new players, young players. They’re still trying to find out who they are,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “The way Paolo played tonight, if he could play that way, then you get accustomed. There are different things that open up for you then. So, it’s going to take a little bit.”

Less than two weeks prior to Monday’s win, the Blue Devils took down Kentucky, a top-10 opponent, under the bright lights at Madison Square Garden. Just five home games later, Duke and its players seem to have matured substantially, and two of the greatest examples of that—Banchero and Moore—put that growth on full display against The Citadel. The star duo placed first and second on the team in points, rebounds and assists in the type of performance that fans have come to expect from both players.

“[Banchero] is having a sensational year, but he can get a lot better,” said Krzyzewski. “This was his sixth college game, so he’s still learning, but he has great growth potential. He’s already very good, but he can become just a lot better.”

Banchero, however, had not been living up to that expectation leading up to Monday night’s contest. He averaged 10.5 points across Duke’s previous two games against Gardner-Webb and Lafayette, and while the Blue Devils managed without their star freshman producing, Banchero’s sudden disappearance on offense was a bit concerning.

Banchero put any lingering doubts to rest Monday, powering the Duke offense and giving fans the dominant scoring performance they had been waiting for with a career-high 28 points on 10-of-19 shooting. It may have been the Seattle native’s first big-time scoring output as a Blue Devil, but it oddly felt as if he was simply assuming his role. Beyond his scoring, Banchero’s passing stood out as he racked up six assists and zero turnovers, a marked improvement from the beginning of the season.

“I think the first three games, I had like one assist and 10 turnovers, so that’s uncharacteristic of me and I wanted to work on that and change that,” said Banchero. “Just playing more freely, making easy reads, finding my teammates, it really came together today. It’s a good start for me, and I look forward to hopefully continuing that level of being able to take care of the ball and find my teammates.”

If the Citadel was truly the pinnacle of Banchero and Duke’s growth to this point, then it would be remiss not to dive deeper into Moore’s play and enormous improvement since his sophomore season. The junior captain, who nearly turned in an unprecedented second triple-double Monday night, has led the Blue Devils with his consistent play early on. His impact on Duke is remarkable, especially considering where he left off in 2020-21, and he has done it by reinventing his game and his role on the team.

“I think my role is really just to do whatever needs to be done on our team,” said Moore. “I think I’m doing that.”

Moore and Banchero have both stepped into prominent roles on the team, as evidenced by their play against the Bulldogs. But while Duke has seen important growth out of its centerpieces, the advancement of the rest of Duke’s young core has been equally important to its early-season success. Sophomore center Mark Williams appears to be getting comfortable after a rocky start, freshman Trevor Keels is finding his footing after a big debut and starting point guard Jeremy Roach fits well into the starting five.

Of course, the Blue Devils still have a long way to go toward realizing their potential. There are areas of concern—namely defensive rebounding and 3-point defense—but the fact of the matter remains that Duke has passed each of its tests to this point, and learned a great deal about itself in the process. Leading up to Friday night’s matchup in Las Vegas, that should be enough for the Blue Devils to consider themselves well-prepared and a worthy opponent for college basketball’s most feared foe.

“We can’t wait. We leave [Tuesday] and we’re there [in Las Vegas] a couple of days early, but it’s always going to be a business trip for us,” said Moore. “We’re going there to take care of business.”

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