By Peter Koutroumpis
DURHAM, N.C. – It was not a coincidence that the fourth-ranked Duke Blue Devils hosted Army West Point at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Veterans Day Sunday.
According to Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, a West Point grad, it had been in the works for a while.
“We tried to get Army to play here last year and it didn’t work out around the same time,” Krzyzewski said.
“We tried to put it together too late and they couldn’t make changes, so our administrators did it and we thought for us and for their program it’s a showcase game. For them to be at us on ESPN, rivaling the Bears vs. Lions and all the other NFL games, it’s a great thing. The United States Military Academy is part of me big-time. To see them play hard like that and well and to have them play here at Duke is really a big honor for us. A number of those kids, those seniors, two years from now, they can be in Afghanistan or Iraq or whatever. Again, it’s an honor for us to have them here.”
Playing on national TV and on a day that held so much meaning had to provide additional incentive for the Cadets, led by captains Jordan Fox and Tommy Funk, to make a spirited showing in front of the packed house of 9,314 in attendance, Duke’s 439th consecutive sellout crowd that continued to extend the longest streak in college or pro ranks.
All eyes were on them.
Add to it going up against the Blue Devils’ heralded top-ranked Freshman class featuring Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish, all three of whom eventually combined for 75 total points, many expected West Point to be bystanders watching an Acela train roar by.
That wasn’t the case for the first 25 minutes of play.
Fox and Funk, described by Army head coach Jimmy Alen as “tough kids”, didn’t relent and pushed themselves and teammates Matt Wilson (15 points, 9 rebounds) and Alex King (11 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists) to finish in double figures.
Sure, Funk’s 12-points and 10 assists, along with Fox’s 10 points, numbers that included two 3s from each, didn’t look impressive compared to Williamson’s monstrous solo finish – 27 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and six blocks.
But, the Cadets’ ability to cause Duke to turn the ball over 12 times, six per half, had them trailing 50-42 at halftime and a quick 5-0 run to start the second, put the differential at just three.
Following a more-than-just-impressive blowout 118-84 win over second-ranked Kentucky in their season-opener, the Blue Devils had to work to get past an experienced squad that utilized its bench to contribute 29 points.
“I was super proud of our basketball team today,” Alen said.
They [Duke] were coming in off a big-time game against Kentucky. Our guys prepared and I think our guys stuck to the game plan. We were trying to keep [Duke] out of the paint, from getting some easy baskets inside and force them to take some shots from the perimeter, trying to get them to have to make a few passes in a possession. I thought our guys did a really good job of that. Our goal going the other direction was to play with pace and try to create some easy baskets for us. Probably the best thing we did today was taking care of the basketball and not giving them opportunities in transition.”
Krzyzewski was glad that his alma mater presented the early challenge it did.
“That was a great game for us. Army played terrific,” he said.
“They played hard, they played together, they played fast. The perfect game for us following Kentucky and as we grow as a team. I didn’t think our preparation for the game was at the level that it has been, and part of that has to do with winning a game by as much as we did in that setting against Kentucky. Part of becoming good is keeping the noise out of your locker room, and when something good happens and you have the start of the season, there’s a lot of noise. For us, it’s not always good noise but in this case, it was exceptional noise, where, as an 18 or 19-year-old, when you’ve got four freshmen and you don’t have veterans, you have to be mature about listening to that, and I don’t think we handled that well. We played against a team that took advantage of it. The good thing is I thought the last 15 minutes of the game we played harder than they did and we played well.”
While Williamson continued as the main driver, Reddish and Barrett helped put the pedal to the floor while slowing Army’s pace with a steal apiece, and dropped 14 and 15 points, respectively in the final half.
Reddish’s four 3-pointers ignited the Cameron faithful on each clean drop through the nylon.
His total of seven made from beyond the arc set a Duke freshman record.
“I think it was our energy,” Reddish said of his contribution to the Blue Devils’ offensive surge.
“The bench gave us a lot of energy. Our fans, the greatest fans in the world, gave us a lot of energy. We just fed off their energy and played off that.”
“He does it every day,” Barrett said of his teammate dropping bombs from the corner.
“It’s not like it’s something new. He does it all the time.”
With a second win in a row and the 37th straight home-opening win during Krzyzewski’s tenure, Duke continued to develop along the learning curve he’s set out for this squad.
He wasn’t convinced his team understood what they would be up against facing Fox, Funk and the Cadets.
“They fire the ball from all over the place. Funk is terrific at that…They’re good. We lost Fox. He’s their best shooter. We lost him in transition twice. Those are the things our guys have to learn. We have an awareness of that guy – know where he’s at. We can do better. But those two kids are really good…Jimmy’s done a really good job with his team. I congratulate them for a really good performance against us.”
Though not given a tremendous scare, and regardless of what ungodly amount of points they can and will score, Williamson and his teammates will quickly learn to trust what they’re told about who they will face for the remainder of the season.
The big man got the message.
“It’s one thing for somebody to tell you that everybody’s going to bring their best against you and that all their shots were going to feel like they’re going in, but until you truly experience it, I think you have to go through it to fully understand.”
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport