DURHAM — For most of the preseason, Duke was defined by who wasn’t there, more than who was.
The Zion Williamson Show & Traveling Circus has closed.
“They enjoyed it last year,” assistant coach Nolan Smith said. “But it’s definitely going to be a different feel. It’s obvious. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, there’s not as much attention on us.’ It might be a little bit better to just go out and play basketball instead of walking into every single arena and home game and when Zion does a layup, everybody’s like, ‘Oooh!’”
Suddenly, it seems like Duke has gone from being college basketball’s version of One Direction to college basketball’s version of ZZ Top.
Indeed, after nearly 10 years of going the boy band route, there’s a classic rock vibe to this year’s Blue Devils.
“Each group is different,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We could get away with some things because of our talent level last year. With this group, we kind of do it more old-fashioned. We have the blend of old and new. I really like the group and that dynamic of guys who’ve been through it.”
The rumors of a change in approach started almost as soon as Duke was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by Michigan State in March, falling short of a berth in the Final Four.
Coach K was backing away from the one-and-done model he’d used since Kyrie Irving came to Durham in 2011. After a never-ending string of NBA lottery picks produced one title in 2015 and with the one-and-done rule seemingly an endangered species, doomed to disappear with the next collective bargaining agreement, Krzyzewski was going to focus on the next tier of prospect — guys who he could count on to stick around for a while.
Point guard Tre Jones underscored the new approach by choosing to come back to Duke for a second year and match his brother Tyus with a title.
It’s far from a clean break, however. It’s doubtful that freshman center Vernon Carey Jr. or power forward Matthew Hurt are making sure they take the proper prerequisites for the courses they plan on taking next year. And fellow freshman forward Wendell Moore likely isn’t destined to give a Senior Day speech either.
Still, there’s more of an age-defined hierarchy than in previous years.
“Javin (Delaurier) and Jack (White) help these younger guys,” Krzyzewski said of his senior big men and, with Jones, team tri-captains. “What are you gonna help Zion with? (He and Barrett) were arguably the two best. I like the fact that this is more of an old-fashioned dynamic for us. I think we can be pretty good.”
Part of the reason for that is the freshmen aren’t quite as college-ready as some of the recent Blue Devils. Before Williamson and Barrett, there was Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. Before that, there was Brandon Ingram, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Jabari Parker. The list goes on — players who were clearly the best on the floor every time they suited up.
Now there’s more of a competition to see who’s best.
“I think we’re going to be a team like that,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re going to develop a little bit more like freshmen develop. It’s what it is. You make whatever you have a good thing. As a coach, you have to adapt. As an administrator, you have to adapt to what’s going on.”
Of course, for the revised approach to work, the older players need to be able to hold down the fort until the freshmen get up to speed. If not, disaster could be on the horizon.
That’s exactly what Duke fans were considering after the team’s first exhibition game, a 69-63 win over Division II Northwest Missouri State. It was Duke’s closest exhibition win in more than two decades.
Carey and Moore were each held to four points even though no one on Northwest Missouri State was taller than 6-foot-8.
The Blue Devils were held to 2-of-16 from three while giving up 15-of-34.
Afterward, Krzyzewski praised the opponents, who were undefeated national champions last season, while repeating that he wasn’t concerned about the close score. Then the Blue Devils came out in plain white tank tops and logo-less shorts for the next exhibition, perhaps the earliest in the season that Krzyzewski has taken the team’s Duke gear until they play hard enough to earn it.
“We obviously have a very talented team,” Smith said. “We don’t know who’s who yet. All our guys are working to show and prove themselves. I think it’s going to be very good for our team not having that much separation. Every single game, every single night, it could be somebody different.”
As long as it’s somebody, then the ensemble cast approach will work. But at some point, someone needs to decide it’s his show and step to center stage.