NEW YORK — Tuesday was the start of Mike Krzyzewski’s farewell tour. Tuesday was also the start of Paolo Banchero’s push to be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft.
But by the end of No. 9 Duke’s 79-71 win over No. 10 Kentucky, the biggest storyline coming out of Madison Square Garden was freshman guard Trevor Keels, who stole the show with 25 points in leading the Blue Devils to a season-opening win.
Keels, a physical 6-foot-4 combo guard, dominated the first eight minutes of the second half while Banchero was in the locker room dealing with cramps, and then helped the Blue Devils seal the game in the final few minutes.
“I knew when P went out, somebody had to step up, and that’s what I did,” Keels said. “I kept looking at the score and I just made sure we was up and we was winning. That’s something that I look at all the time. I don’t really care about my points or nothing like that. It’s [caring whether] we come out with the victory.”
The lead-up to the second game of Tuesday night’s Champions Classic doubleheader focused mostly on Krzyzewski. He was honored at halftime of the Kansas-Michigan State opener, and a conversation featuring John Calipari, Tom Izzo and Bill Self discussing their favorite Krzyzewski memories played on the MSG video board at halftime of the second game.
Once the game tipped off, it was all about Banchero. A top-three recruit who is currently projected by ESPN as the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft, Banchero has an offensive arsenal rarely seen in college basketball. He is 6-foot-10, 250 pounds, but can handle the ball, hit face-up jumpers from the top of the key and score around the basket. He also absorbs contact consistently, getting to the free-throw line with regularity.
Despite missing time, he still finished with 22 points and seven rebounds, and shot 7-for-11 from the field.
“He’s a special player and you can coach him hard,” Krzyzewski said. “But he’s going to keep getting better. He’s the real deal. There’s no question about it.”
Perhaps the only weaknesses in Banchero’s game Tuesday night were the cramps that flared up early in the second half, forcing him into the locker room to get an IV. Banchero was one of four Duke players to deal with cramps, according to Krzyzewski, with the star freshman and Wendell Moore Jr. both needing IVs.
When Banchero was subbed out and headed to the locker room less than three minutes into the second half, Kentucky had erased Duke’s halftime lead and was up one. The Wildcats had momentum, and Duke was without its best player.
Eight minutes later, Duke led by 15.
Keels took charge — something he refers to as “Keel Mode” — scoring 12 points in a 24-8 run that gave the Blue Devils control heading down the stretch. After Kentucky responded with an 11-0 run to cut Duke’s lead to four, Keels made a driving layup to stop the run and then hit another shot 90 seconds later to extend the Blue Devils’ lead to 11 and effectively end the game.
He finished with 25 points on 10-for-18 shooting, also dishing out two assists and making three steals.
“This kid right here is going to be a great player,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s not a good player. Trevor is a great player. He weighs 230 pounds, and if he was a running back, he would know how to pick holes. He gets fouled. He doesn’t charge very much because he’s so low and has great body control. For three straight years, he was probably the best player in the D.C. area.”
In a stark contrast to previous freshman-heavy seasons under Calipari, Kentucky relied heavily on veterans against Duke. For long stretches in the second half, the Wildcats had a lineup of five transfers. Of their top seven players in minutes played, only one was a freshman: TyTy Washington, who struggled to finish on the offensive end.
Two newcomers — transfers Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia) and Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia) — kept Kentucky competitive, however. Wheeler was dynamic in the first half, getting into the paint at will and finding teammates for open shots or finishing himself. Tshiebwe was a force at both ends of the floor, finishing with 17 points, 19 rebounds — including 12 on the offensive end — and two blocks.
But the Wildcats will need their other stars to make plays consistently if they’re to stay in the top 10 nationally.
“I said, their two top-five players played like top-five players,” Calipari said, referring to Banchero and Keels. “Now if you want to be them, then step your game up.”
With Duke’s two marquee players leading the way, the Blue Devils’ ceiling might have been raised on Tuesday night. After last season’s disappointing 13-11 campaign, there were questions entering the season on the potential of this team. Inexperience and lack of depth, especially on the perimeter, were two big ones.
And while the team didn’t look perfect against Kentucky — the Blue Devils shot 1-for-13 from 3-point range, for example — Banchero and Keels provided serious optimism for Krzyzewski’s last hurrah.
Even if Krzyzewski doesn’t want to admit it just yet.
“I’ve reminded them they’re 1-0,” he said. “It’s a long season.”