Each March brings a new breakout star for every college basketball team, especially the ones that make it deep in the NCAA tournament.
The guys that turn from afterthought into household name, whose elevated play is tabbed the catalyst for their team’s string of victories. For Duke, that player through the NCAA tournament’s first two weekends has undoubtedly been Jeremy Roach.
The only problem is that he isn’t breaking out at all.
“Well, first off, he has been the point guard all year,” Paolo Banchero said after the Blue Devils’ win against Texas Tech, in response to a question about Roach emerging as the point guard Duke needed. “I wouldn’t say we were in need. He has always been able to step up in big moments, and so we trust him 100 percent.
“We’ve trusted him the whole year. Gonzaga, he made big plays down the stretch. Every game he has stepped up in the clutch, so we trust Jeremy 100 percent.”
Throughout Duke’s four NCAA tournament wins, especially its crunch-time victories against Michigan State and Texas Tech, it’s been Roach who’s stepped up in the final few minutes.
First, it was his countless acrobatic drives against the Spartans followed by his dagger three with just over a minute left. And then, two monumental midrange jumpers in the last three minutes that helped push the Blue Devils over the edge against the Red Raiders.
For a guy that’s only averaging 8.6 points per game on 42% shooting from the field this season, moments like that scream “March breakout.” But whenever the team’s been asked about Roach’s supposed breakout, they’ve downplayed the story, just like Banchero did last Thursday.
There are multiple things to unpack from Banchero’s quote. First, it’s the fact that Roach already has stepped up in Duke’s biggest moments this season.
Back in November, the Blue Devils led No. 1 Gonzaga by just a point with under a minute remaining. Wendell Moore Jr., Trevor Keels and Mark Williams were all on the floor, but it was Roach who jab-stepped right and drove left before banking in a tightly-contested layup with his off hand. Banchero, Moore and Williams largely consumed the headlines following the victory, and for good reason, but it was Roach’s shot that proved to be the game-winner in Duke’s biggest win of the regular season.
Three months later, Duke was inside the thunderdome in Charlottesville, Va. Banchero was in the midst of his worst offensive performance as a Blue Devil, the Cavaliers’ Kihei Clark was on fire and Duke was facing the possibility of its second loss to unranked Virginia in a matter of three weeks. But Roach—despite coming off the bench—stepped up when his team needed him, knocking down a flurry of momentum-swinging shots while helping keep Clark at bay throughout the second half.
And head coach Mike Krzyzewski made sure his point guard’s performance didn’t get overshadowed this time.
“[Roach’s] verve on offense really lifted us,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “Obviously, AJ [Griffin] made big plays and we were able to do a couple things there, but I thought Jeremy’s performance was the differentiator.”
The second notable aspect of Banchero’s quote after the Sweet 16 was the word trust. For a point guard, there’s no more important word. A team’s point guard controls the ball on offense. He’s the one that—more often than all his teammates—has to decide when it’s time to dish it off and get others involved, and when it’s time to take matters into his own hands.
It’s essential that the team trusts their point guard with that responsibility. But perhaps even more important is that the point guard believes that his teammates trust him, and it’s safe to say the Blue Devils have reached that point with Roach.
“These guys—like Paolo just said, these guys trust me, and the coaching staff trusts me,” Roach said of his clutch baskets against Texas Tech. “Trust in your work and being instinctive was the biggest key out there.”
Of course, when you’re playing like Roach has, it’s easy for his teammates to trust him.
“He is comfortable out there all the time, and so when the ball is in his hands, we’re comfortable,” Banchero said. “Have you ever seen it get taken away from him? Exactly—that’s all that needs to be said.”
There are many reasons why Roach’s contributions are only starting to get noticed now by the general public.
Perhaps it’s because he’s the only one out of Duke’s top six rotation players that hasn’t been projected to be an NBA Draft pick, largely a product of his small stature.
Perhaps it’s because, until now, his scoring numbers have never popped out in the box score even during his best performances—in the three games that Keels was out with a calf injury in late January, Roach notched a 24-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio and kept the offense afloat, but never tallied double-digit points during that stretch.
Of course, Roach has struggled with inconsistency, which is another reason why his back-to-back gutsy performances against the Spartans and Red Raiders drew so much applause, and why people are only now calling him Duke’s spark plug and the floor general the Blue Devils needed to make a run.
But to those that’ve been following all year—from Las Vegas to Louisville to Charlottesville—Roach has already been that guy. Not everyone in the public, media and fans alike, always believed in him. But his teammates and coaches did—they believed in him, and they trusted him.
And that's all that matters.
“We’ve never stopped believing in him because he’s believable,” Krzyzewski said. “He deserves it.”
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