DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Duke’s star-studded freshmen are facing another first, one not many expected this soon — if ever — during their presumably short college careers.
Bouncing back from a loss.
The title game at the Maui Invitational might have provided a reality check for anyone expecting the Blue Devils to coast to an undefeated — if not unchallenged —season behind one of the best freshman classes in years.
Now they’re ready to show what lessons they learned from their first defeat, starting Tuesday night against Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
“No one wants to lose, but I definitely think to lose that game was a great learning experience for us,” guard RJ Barrett said. “Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) said none of his teams went undefeated — he’s lost with every team. So it’s just something that happens in basketball, and we’ve just got to learn and move on from it.”
This latest group of young Blue Devils (5-1) drew comparisons to some of the greatest freshman classes in the sport’s history — including Michigan’s famed “Fab Five” in the 1990s — after blowing out then-No. 2 Kentucky to climb to No. 1, routing a couple of outmanned mid-majors at home, then winning two games in Maui during a 5-0 start.
But a loss to Gonzaga — which propelled the Bulldogs to the top spot in the AP Top 25 and dropped Duke to No. 3 — took care of that undefeated talk and showed why it might be wise to pump the brakes on the hype train.
“We’re trying to learn, go through a different experience every day,” Barrett said.
ESPN analyst and former college coach Fran Fraschilla believes these Blue Devils have “a chance to be as good as the Kentucky classes in ’09 and ’11” but pointed out that few one-and-done-dominated teams have won the NCAA Tournament. And as impressive as they’ve been to start their college careers, how they’ll fit at the next level remains an inexact science.
“We all expect that these three Duke freshmen are going to have a major impact on this season,” Fraschilla said. “But the jury is still out on pro potential because a lot of the things being said about these guys were being said about Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor, and their college success hasn’t necessarily translated the way many expected in the NBA.”
Utah Jazz rookie Grayson Allen has a unique perspective.
He was part of Duke’s recruiting class in 2014-15 led by eventual one-and-dones Okafor, Winslow and Tyus Jones and won the national title. When they left, he stuck around, and his other three Duke teams were stacked with one-year players that didn’t advance quite as far in the NCAA Tournament.
“You hear people saying undefeated, they can’t be stopped — they have to do as best they can to ignore that and keep improving,” Allen said. “If there’s anything I learned from four years of college basketball, the tournament and college basketball does not care who’s good in November or December. All (that matters) is March and that first week of April. It’s very unforgiving.
“So, they have to make sure they keep improving throughout the year and keep their egos in a good spot. I don’t think any of them have bad egos, but you can hear all of these different things about draft projections, you need to do this, you need to do that, and you can get outside of yourself a little bit. If they just stay focused and listen to coach, they’ll be good.”
Krzyzewski has figured out how to handle one-and-done players, cycling 14 of them through his program since Kyrie Irving started the run in 2011. Four were around last year: Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval.
“Don’t play for things that the outside wants you to play for,” Krzyzewski said of the current group. “Play for what you want to play for and that’s fun, getting better. They really like each other, they love each other, and they play so hard.”
Allen said he got a taste of that during the summer. He worked out at Duke and played pick-up games with them, saying Zion Williamson “is easy to play with, he’s easy to play off of” and point guard Tre Jones — the younger brother of Allen’s classmate — “is a lot like Tyus, and that’s a compliment.”
But the comparisons end there, he said.
One key difference: His freshman class could lean on veterans Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson for advice and support. With only one non-freshman averaging more than 20 minutes, that’s not a luxury the current Blue Devils have.
“That’s the one area, if you could pick a weakness for (this current Duke team), it’s experience,” Allen said. “They’re going to have to have guys step up and provide leadership. That (leadership) could come from the freshman, or it could come from the juniors and other guys.”
If not, the Hoosiers are capable of hanging the second loss on the young Blue Devils.
AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
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