Freshman talent has Duke at the head of the basketball class
As the numbers on the scoreboard at Cameron Indoor Stadium escalated from staggering to eye-popping to incomprehensible Tuesday night against an overwhelmed St. Francis (Pa.) team, the only people in the building who weren’t in awe of Duke’s offensive onslaught were the Blue Devils themselves.
Duke threw an astounding 124 points at St. Francis, the most the program has poured on any opponent since 1997. The Blue Devils’ 34 assists were a school record. The 71 points they scored in the first half were 1 shy of the school record for a half. Five players finished in double figures, and all but one of the 14 players who touched the floor got a bucket.
But for freshman shooting guard Gary Trent Jr., it wasn’t a matter of the top-ranked Blue Devils being in peak early-season form; it was simply business as usual.
“No matter what the score is, we continue to play hard at all times,” Trent said.
Even when he woke up the next morning and realized that those 124 points were indeed real and not some form of college hoops nirvana, his outlook didn’t change. His mind was on the next task.
“After the game was over, I didn’t really worry about it too much,” Trent said. “After that game, we just put that aside and we’re just really worried about Boston College.”
With a top-ranked and undefeated team coming to Conte Forum on Saturday for its first Atlantic Coast Conference matchup, it makes more sense for BC to be the one worrying.
But for a team built on the talent of eight freshmen who make up the nation’s top recruiting class, every game — especially an ACC opener — is a new test.
“We start ACC play, I heard it was like a whole other league within itself,” Trent said. “It’s crazy talent. So we’re really just trying to lock on that now.”
A ceiling that was already high coming into the season has only risen since the Blue Devils ripped off 11 wins to start.
Duke hauled in the No. 1 player in the country in Marvin Bagley III as part of its star-studded recruiting class and sealed the top spot in the AP preseason poll for a second straight season.
But they were flush with inexperience all over the floor, from Trent (the top shooting guard prospect) to Wendell Carter Jr. (the No. 1 power forward) to Trevon Duval (the No. 1 point guard).
If there was a question, it was how quickly the core of young players could get their performance to match the expectations.
“We think we can go pretty far as a team,” Carter said. “We talk about it every day. We have something special. We’ve just got to keep working.
“The biggest challenge is just, having so much talent, we’ve got to be able to jell together and we should be good.”
What may have been overlooked is how much familiarity they had among themselves long before stepping foot on campus.
Trent, an Ohio native, knew Duval, who came from Delaware, since they were in the second grade, crossing paths on the AAU circuit. He first met Carter in middle school.
“So I’ve known these guys for a while now,” Trent said. “I know their games and they know mine as well. We know everything we can do, we know everything we can’t do, and we’re slowly but surely figuring out that about the whole team.
“It’s coming together quick for us. Everything’s clicking, in a sense, and we’re just going to continue to run with that.”
When Carter was narrowing his college choices, one of the surprise finalists was Harvard. The prestige of the Ivy League and the Crimson program under Tommy Amaker made it attractive to Carter. The allure of a program-changing player (and possibly a one-and-done) made Carter attractive to the Crimson.
But Duke was, well, Duke.
“It played a huge part,” Carter said. “I had a great relationship with the coaching staff here and I knew a lot of the kids that were coming here from my class also. So I just saw it as the perfect opportunity, and they’re a great academic school. They’re not Harvard, but they’re pretty close.
“I just saw it as the best of both worlds, so I just took it and ran with it.”
Whether it was the baptism at Cameron to start the season or the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago or the PK 80 Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Ore., Carter and the rest of the fresh faces quickly saw first-hand the weight the Duke brand carries.
“There’s definitely something special,” Carter said. “Being the No. 1 team in this country, it’s definitely fun. Going to other people’s houses, you always have a target on your back, and that’s just going to make your opponent play even harder and that just makes the game more competitive.”
Duke doesn’t have to look far back through history to find examples of teams built on super freshmen. They’ve heard the comparisons to the Kentucky teams. They know about the freshman class last year that lost in the second round of the tournament.
“I definitely do look at some of the teams that were young,” Carter said. “I don’t try to compare ourselves to them, because we have something special over here. So we’re just trying to get to the final goal.”
To them, their youth doesn’t matter on the floor.
“It’s crazy, we’ll be playing out there and it’ll be all these freshmen and they consider us young,” Trent said. “But we were just talking yesterday like, ‘We look older than them.’ So it’s really kind of hard to say we’re young.”
But they know they are in for a season full of firsts, in a program with so much history.
“Everything we do is a new experience,” Trent said. “We’re slowly but surely getting past that stage a little bit. We had a couple big stages and a couple dogfights, so we got a couple things out of the way, but there’s so much more we still need to continue to learn — and that we’re going to learn — but it all starts this Saturday when ACC play starts.”