After each Duke men's basketball game this season, check back here for the Player of the Game and more. Today, the Blue Zone breaks down Trevor Keels' big night and a big win for the Blue Devils in the Big Apple:
One player: Trevor Keels
On Trevor Keels’ first bucket of the game, he blew past his lone Wildcat defender at the three-point line before muscling into the paint for a routine layup. By the end of the game, any Keels drive sent the Kentucky defense into a frenzy, with immediate defensive pressure thrown his way. That’s how good Keels—whose 25 points became the third-most in a Duke debut—was in the Blue Devils’ 79-71 win at Madison Square Garden, and it’s why he earned the Blue Zone’s inaugural Player of the Game honors in a landslide.
For most of the night, Keels and fellow five-star freshman Paolo Banchero fueled an offensive attack that kept the Wildcats at bay until the Blue Devils broke the game open in the second half. After Kentucky took its first lead just after the break and Banchero, who scored 22 points in the win, exited briefly with cramps, Keels took over, sparking a lightning-fast run to put the Blue Devils up 15 points in a flash. Not only did that short stretch help the Blue Devils secure the game, but it proved Keels to be every bit the player Duke needs alongside Banchero.
There are few shooting guards who can make all the plays Keels did against Kentucky: a powerful alley-oop layup off of a baseline inbounds pass, a stepback three-pointer and a collection of transition scores. And as exciting as Keels was on the offensive end, he was arguably just as good on defense, holding Wildcats freshman TyTy Washington to just nine points on 3-of-14 shooting. It’s best, of course, to not overreact, but Keels’ stellar debut is promising, to say the least.
One word: Exhilarating
The buildup to Tuesday night’s Champions Classic for Duke has been a process that no words can quite do justice. Ever since head coach Mike Krzyzewski announced his upcoming retirement back in June, anticipation for this year’s Duke squad has soared to remarkably high levels. After a down season in 2020-21, can the Blue Devils do something special before Coach K says goodbye?
Under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden—a fitting place to begin—the Blue Devils turned in an imperfect yet exhilarating performance against a top-tier opponent that suggests the answer to that question might be yes. With star-like performances from its star freshmen and an impressive display of depth, Duke lived up to the moment in its opener, giving fans everywhere reason for optimism and excitement as the season begins.
One stat: 19 offensive rebounds for Kentucky
Entering the game, it felt as if the Blue Devils had quite the advantage on the interior with 7-foot sophomore center Mark Williams, 6-foot-10 graduate transfer Theo John and 6-foot-10 Banchero. But Kentucky rallied in the paint early and often, consistently earning second chance opportunities and ultimately making 77 field goal attempts to Duke’s 61. Much of Kentucky’s success on the boards belonged to West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe, who hauled in 12 offensive rebounds and 19 total before the final buzzer.
Duke did many good things and returned home win in hand, but its baffling struggle to keep up with the much-smaller Wildcats on the glass goes to show that while exhilarating, Tuesday’s win was an imperfect one at heart. With one of the nation’s best frontcourts and size to boot, it does not make a lot of sense to see the Blue Devils get beaten so badly in such a simple area. Wonderful offensive showings from Keels and Banchero helped Duke make up for it, but if there is a blemish on the win, the Blue Devils' struggle on the boards would be it.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.