Duke’s freshmen pass first tournament test

Young team isn't intimidated in win over Iona

Blue Devils forward Marvin Bagley III grabs a rebound against Iona during the second half of Duke's first round win inn the 2018 NCAA Tournament at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. (Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports)

PITTSBURGH — They’re not freshmen anymore.

The old cliché has been repeated in the NCAA Tournament as much as “Win or go home.” By March, a first-year college player has put in 30-plus games, survived the rigors of conference play and a run in the conference tournament.

After all that experience, most players and coaches say, they’re not freshmen anymore.

As Duke prepared for its first NCAA Tournament game, however, they were thinking just the opposite, as evidenced by freshman Gary Trent Jr.’s response to the cliché.

When asked if he still considered himself a freshman, Trent growled after Duke’s 89-67 win over Iona in the NCAA first round, “We can’t use that as an excuse. We’re young, but …”

No, Gary, the questioner clarified. Do you still consider yourself a freshman?

“Oh,” Trent answered. “I guess?”

So there are clearly still some things for the Duke youngsters to learn, a fact that had the coaches and upperclassmen on guard before the game.

“When you’re 18 and 19 and you go into a new experience,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That’s what we’ve had to go through the whole year, first road game, first conference game, first 10 o’clock start, all those things. So, this is a first for them. It’s just nerves. We didn’t have (them) today, but you can have it. You can get jittery, a little bit tight. That’s what happens to people, and our guys didn’t do that today, which I’m really pleased about.”

Marvin Bagley III made the first freshman mistake of the day, when he turned on the television set.

“I started watching the first game,” the freshman big man said, “at the hotel, before we came to the arena.”

Once the team arrived at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena, the televisions were turned off.

“You’re trying to tell these guys,” Grayson Allen, the team’s lone senior, said. “Prepare them for the atmosphere being inside of it, versus being on the outside. Last year, they were watching the games in high school during the day. Now you’re in it. It can be easy to get distracted by who is playing who, who is beating who, what’s the score going on there?”

The Duke freshmen were able to focus and post a first-round win in the NCAAs, 89-67 over Iona. Bagley led the way with 22 points on 10-of-14 shooting. It was the eighth-most points a Duke freshman has scored in an NCAA game and the second-most field goals made.

Duke was able to jump out to an early lead — the Blue Devils never trailed in the game and led by seven at the first television timeout.

“I thought they did a great job coming out aggressive and confident,” said Allen, who had 16 points and nine assists. “I don’t think we were nervous or overanxious because of the tournament atmosphere. We came out very well.”

Wendell Carter Jr., another freshman, got nine points and eight rebounds on a sprained ankle that’s still bothering him. Carter played just 24 minutes on the day.

Point guard Trevon Duval hit four of five 3-point shots for 19 points. Also recovering from an ankle injury, Duval dished out eight assists, most in a tournament game by a Duke freshman since 2006.

“I was definitely a little nervous,” Duval said, “because it was my first NCAA Tournament. Overall, I was just excited and ready to play.”

Next, the Duke freshmen get to learn about the short turnaround, playing a Rhode Island team that dispatched Oklahoma, led by its own freshman phenom, Trae Young, earlier in the day.

“Everyone in the tournament is good,” Krzyzewski said, “but they are experienced good.”

Duke just needs to hope that its inexperienced crew is good enough.