Jeremy Roach and Trevor Keels already led their school to one championship.
Now they'll try to do it again.
When Keels announced his decision to become a Blue Devil back in the spring, it became the second time he chose to play basketball at the same school as Roach, who is one grade above him. The two have played together since their middle school days and made up the backcourt of the St. Paul VI’s boy’s basketball team in Chantilly, Va., as well as both playing for Team Takeover in AAU basketball.
They won a state championship at Paul VI in 2019-20, and each had their pick of a number of quality college basketball programs. Roach and Keels both landed on being Blue Devils, with the former using the latter’s love for Duke to bring him to Durham despite a rocky season last year.
“I'm just trying to keep giving him confidence about like, ‘Yo, we're gonna be great. We’re gonna be special next year, we're gonna do the same thing we did at [Paul VI], do the same thing we did on Takeover,” Roach said during the team’s Sept. 28 media day of how active he was in recruiting Keels.
All those years and hours at the gym later, and the two have a bond unlike most other backcourts in the country.
“I’ve been learning from Jeremy since I’ve been at [Paul VI], since I’ve been a freshman, so still learning from him is unbelievable,” Keels said during the same media day. “Our bond is crazy.”
It’s not hard for others in the program to see that the two guards move in symphony.
“There is a chemistry there and both those guys are really well-coached. I give Coach Glenn Farello a lot of credit and Keith Stevens, their AAU coach,” associate head coach Jon Scheyer said Sept. 28. “They’ve been coached hard and they’ve been through tough times together, they’re really battle-tested. They’re not afraid, they both play off one another very well.”
Blue Devil fans learned of Keels’ commitment in an April 2 Youtube video. The camera panned left to a shirtless Keels sitting on a table. The tattoo needle buzzed while Morgan Freeman’s voice filled the air, and the artist finished writing the phrase that Keels remembers when he plays: “Keel Mode.”
It’s a play on words, since “Keel” and "kill" sound similar, and it's something that his dad coined when Keels was a sophomore in high school. Now it has a permanent spot stretching across his shoulder blades.
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“Be yourself, but be in attack mode at the same time,” Keels said of what his tattoo means.
Attack mode for Keels looks like a blend of downtown shooting, versatile defense and a pull-up that he can wield from wherever he chooses. And all of that comes packaged in a 6-foot-4, 221-pound frame, giving Duke a physically mature guard built for ACC play.
“I’ve noticed that he’s really good,” Krzyzewski said at the ACC preseason media day. “He’ll make me a better coach, especially if he can hit his three, so right now he’s having a little problem hitting his three.”
The battle test that is the conference slate is still months away. Keels’ first obstacle upon his arrival to Duke was equally as relatable to the Duke students who spend their time playing and cheering in Cameron Indoor Stadium—he missed starting his days with a hug from his mom. But Keels has wanted to wear Duke blue for a long time, and he adjusted to being away from his family while learning to juggle basketball and school. The balance between his sport and class has been difficult, but Keels says he’s enjoying the process.
“Being with this team is just unbelievable,” Keels said. “It’s always been my dream to come to this school and now I’m living my dream. It’s amazing.”
Keels has only played in a Duke jersey in the public eye in Countdown to Craziness and in the Winston-Salem State exhibition game, but his buddy has the Blue Devil faithful covered with the scouting report.
“One of the main reasons I love playing with Trevor is he just does whatever it takes to win,” Roach said in an Aug. 11 press conference.
Roach can say he’s played with Keels the longest, but he’s not the only Blue Devil who has a history with him.
“I’ve been playing against Trevor since eighth grade,” fellow freshman Paolo Banchero said during Duke's media day. “We’ve battled many times growing up so I know what kind of player he is and he was at the time so I wanted Trevor real bad because one—he’s a dog. And two—he’s real skilled, he knows how to play.”
Ready to Rock & Roach
Roach committed to Duke May 8, 2019 with a theatrical video of his own, though his freshman season—and no one else’s for that matter—went as expected due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He endured the typical ups and downs of a first season of college basketball, and all of that was compounded with the stresses that COVID-19 protocols brought along. Now Roach won’t have to be confined to the walls of his Washington Duke Inn hotel room, and he’s free to display all he’s worked on this offseason. So what can be expected from the point guard?
“My role is pretty much the same—lead the team, get guys involved, just be me, play confident, play free,” Roach said.
He’s worked on a wide range of skills, from technical basketball maneuvers to the mental side of his game, and that’s led to his coaches noticing a different player from last year.
“Jeremy is just so much more confident. For me, in basketball confidence is everything,” Smith said during the Sept. 28 media day. “And you've seen him take a big jump in his confidence.”
“Jeremy is so much more athletic,” Krzyzewski said at the team media day.
A reason for the transformation could be the time Roach spends with Krzyzewski learning more about the schematics of basketball and watching film. Or scrimmaging with his teammates and reminding himself that he can play basketball at a high level.
For Roach, the way he sees the game has been a catalyst for the confidence boost.
“The transition from my freshman to sophomore year is pretty drastic, I mean, at least for me, everything comes at you so fast as a freshman and then as a sophomore, everything starts slowing down, you start seeing things more. And you just get more comfortable,” Roach said. “That’s really the big thing, and your confidence rises."
The Blue Devils have loads of talent, but without a poised floor general the season could go down as a what-could-have-been. The comfort and newfound confidence of Roach is crucial, and his new attitude may be the difference between sending Krzyzewski away with a storybook ending and not.
His teammates believe he’s the right guy for the role.
“He’s a real elite guard, he controls the pace of the game, and he’s in the gym every morning working on his jumper, everything, so I think he’s a perfect lead guard for us,” senior captain Joey Baker said.
All year, Roach will have his old buddy alongside him in the backcourt, a reminder of all the two have already accomplished together and all that’s still in store for the future.
“Me and Trevor are great friends off the court…. Our connection is crazy and we feed off one another,” Roach said. “If one’s hot we go to him, if I’m hot then he’ll come to me so we definitely know each other real well.”
Krzyzewski won’t have any chemistry issues to worry about between his backcourt duo, but deciding which one brings the ball up the floor may be tougher.
Roach isn’t worried though.
“If he gets the ball on a break I’mma let him bring it up…,” Roach said. “It doesn’t really matter, we’re gonna do the same thing that we did through [Paul VI] and just watch the success come. I love playing with Trevor.”
With both of their NBA draft stocks rising entering this season, it’s unlikely that this two-part series is going to be made into a trilogy.
But for now, it’s Roach and Keels together in the backcourt, one more time.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.
Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.