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Freshmen carried Duke to the national championship

April 7, 2015 Columns No Comments

INDIANAPOLIS – On Monday night, a freshman-dominated team won a national championship.

It wasn’t who many thought it would be back in October, though.

This seems to be a trend in the college game, given that it’s happened a couple of times lately. Now, though, it’s happened with a program that was among the last to be touched in big numbers by early defections to the NBA and later one-and-done players.

Most figured this Duke team would be better than last year’s team in large part because of their freshmen. Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones both figured to be among the nation’s best freshmen, with the former being mentioned as an ACC and national Player of the Year candidate right from the outset. Justise Winslow also arrived with much fanfare. In other words, this didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. But while a national championship was thought to be a possibility, one dominated by these freshmen to the degree this team was might have been a bit unexpected.

Duke got 60 of their 68 points on Monday night from freshmen, which is a record. For good measure, all 37 of the Blue Devils’ second-half points came from freshmen. For the 29th time in their 39 games, a freshman led them in scoring. The usual suspects did their damage, but when the chips were down, another freshman – an unexpected one – saved them.

Grayson Allen didn’t play when Duke won at Wisconsin in December. That was one of four times he didn’t get into a game. He averaged less than nine minutes and four points per game. He’s basically a bit player on this team, though that won’t be the case in the future; it hasn’t been his turn for a big role, so to speak. Or at least, it wasn’t until Monday night.

Allen finished with 16 points on 5-8 shooting. But numbers don’t do justice to his play. Ten of those points came after Duke fell behind 48-39, their largest deficit in the NCAA Tournament. At that time, they had more than just a nine-point deficit; foul trouble was mounting, with Okafor and Winslow both having three fouls. Allen went on a personal 6-0 run with a three-pointer and an old-fashioned three-point play, and with less than six minutes to go, he gave Duke the lead for the first time in the second half.

Understand this: when Allen took over, Duke was on the ropes. It was basically gut-check time. The game could have gotten away from them.

His play set the table for Jones to hit clutch shot after clutch shot, with Okafor coming back in and mixing in a couple of layups. While Okafor got all the accolades over the course of the season, including being the first freshman to win ACC Player of the Year, Jones was often the clutch player, the guy who came up big in big moments. He was the closer, the guy you had a feeling was going to hit a big shot late in the game if they needed it. En route to scoring a game-high 23 points, he hit big shots late, especially coming off ball screens where a Badger defender didn’t show, leaving him open long enough to get the shot off.

The older Blue Devils were certainly vital to this championship, including on Monday night. The best example of that is Quinn Cook, who might have been the most under-appreciated player in college basketball this season. The senior had a super season, but was overshadowed by Okafor and Jones, and at times Winslow as well. Cook was a senior version of Jones at times with clutch shots and big games, and he did so much for this team beyond what his stats show. He scored just six points on Monday night, but he was ever-present at both ends of the floor.

Duke’s national championship teams haven’t usually been led by freshmen. The last one, in 2009-10, had no freshman who impacted the team anywhere near what Okafor and Jones did for this team, or even Winslow, for that matter. That’s the only other one they have won since the NBA’s age minimum went into effect. Numerous Duke stars in the 1990s who could have left early instead stayed all four years, from Christian Laettner to Bobby Hurley to Grant Hill.

But this was a team led by freshmen, and on Monday night, dominated by them. With one of them having an off night, another one had the game of a lifetime when the Blue Devils needed it most. As many thought would be the case before the season, freshmen would lead the way for the national champions. It just wasn’t the team many expected.

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