Duke never trailed Colorado State on Friday night but the No. 4 Blue Devils were having trouble separating from the Rams throughout the first half.
With 2:18 to play until halftime, Duke’s lead was a mere six points.
That’s when the group that would make the difference on this night — even though not all five players were starters when the game began — asserted themselves.
Senior reserves Jack White and Javin DeLaurier replaced starting freshmen Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt.
They joined guards Alex O’Connell, Tre Jones and Cassius Stanley and went to work.
O’Connell, on his way to a 14-point night, hit a 3-pointer and White stole the ball. Jones hit a jumper in the lane off a pass from O’Connell and added a free throw.
Just like that, Duke’s lead doubled to 12 points. By the time the half was done, thanks to four consecutive DeLaurier points, Duke had scored the game’s last 10 points to lead by 16 on the way to an 89-55 win.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was so impressed by how that group played to end the half he had them start the second half.
“That group at the end of the half really played the best eight minutes of the game, or
the last four minutes of the first half and first four minutes of the second half,” Krzyzewski said. “Jack, Javin, Alex, Cassius, and Tre just found a rhythm defensively and offensively and boom we had it.”
The Blue Devils forced eight Colorado State turnovers over the first nine minutes of the second half.
O’Connell, showing much improved defense over last season, stole a Rams pass out of Duke’s press and tossed a pass to Stanley for an easy slam dunk.
DeLaurier rebounded a Colorado State miss and Jones ended that Duke possession with a layup that pushed the Blue Devils’ lead to 20 points for the first time.
After a time out, Duke scored four points on three Stanley free throws and one from DeLaurier to build a 52-28 lead with 16:39 to play.
Think about that. A lead that was six points with 2:18 left until halftime was now 24 just 3:21 into the second half. In less than six minutes of actual play, Duke quadrupled its lead.
Hurt and Carey eventually returned but those two players, the highest-rated of Duke’s incoming freshmen, played when the outcome was decided.
White and DeLaurier, two seniors who make up half of Duke’s four captains, were better equipped to help the Blue Devils win on this night.
“That’s where Jack and Javin as veterans, I thought they did an outstanding job, so we just went with it, but jeez the differential,” Krzyzewski said. “In those eight minutes was a lot. Hopefully we’re going to find different groups. That doesn’t mean that’s our starting lineup, maybe, but I don’t want to get into that.”
No, with only two games played in the regular season, there’s plenty of time for a lineup to form although Stanley, who scored 19 points on Friday night, continues to shine.
Or maybe Duke won’t have a set starting five. This team doesn’t have a freshman talented enough to play in the NBA now like Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter or Jayson Tatum were over the last three seasons.
So Krzyzewski will shift different groups in and out until he finds what works on a particular night.
This wasn’t a good night for Carey and Hurt.
The 6-10, 260-pound Carey scored 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting but fouled out in just 15 minutes of play.
“I have to adjust to the calls, really, and the playing style,” Carey said, “because, for instance, this game was completely different from the last game where we played Kansas just physical wise and call wise. I have to learn to adjust to that.”
Hurt had nine points and five rebounds in 22 minutes against Colorado State.
Though White and DeLaurier only combined for seven points, their play meshed well with Jones, O’Connell and Stanley to make Duke its best in this game.
“We all were just locked in and had so much energy and enthusiasm,” Jones said. “That group was really about the defense at that time. It was just about not letting them score. We knew that getting those stops we were able to wear them down, wear them down and that led to easier buckets on our offensive end.”
They were the best five for Duke against Colorado State. They’ll all have places in whatever playing rotation Krzyzewski settles into this season.
But Carey and Hurt figure to play their way back into that rotation as well.
This is how the Blue Devils season figures to go — with a different set of heroes any night.
“I want to get into guys playing,” Krzyzewski said, “playing hard and you might find something in practice or during a game because we can improve a lot. There’s no ceiling on any kid because there’s not a role.”