NEW YORK — It was a subtle stare, one easily missed even amidst the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. But if you cut through the crowd noise of some 17,000 people and change — ignore the roars rolling down arena rows like a wave — it was there, plain as day, unspoken strength in a pause.
And so early on, too. Not even five minutes had elapsed yet between Duke and Iowa, in the second game of Tuesday’s Jimmy V Classic, but there was Jeremy Roach rifling off shots. Why wait for the moment, when you’re right in the middle of it? So, shoot. See what happens. Which Roach did: releasing a 3 from the center-left side of the arc, and then watching it rattle through the netting.
Pause. Right there. That’s the look.
Metaphorically, sure: a sign that maybe a big night was in store for Duke’s junior captain. (It was, with Roach eventually tying his career-high in scoring with 22 points.) But also, literally. Rather than rapidly retreating back down the court, Roach stayed rooted to his release point for a split second, staring straight into the crowd as he did. At what, though?
Turns out, two former teammates of Roach’s, who know exactly what it’s like to play in this place: Mark Williams and Trevor Keels. That pair — who, like Roach, keyed Duke’s run to the Final Four last season — were seated courtside to check in on their old college teammate, just behind the basket along the baseline. Now it makes sense: Roach saw his shot drop, then saw his former teammates egging him on. How could he not look?
“I’ll give them some credit,” Roach joked postgame, shortly after No. 15 Duke’s 74-62 win was finalized. “They were just giving me some motivation. I mean, it’s the Garden, so they had the energy, for sure.”
Truthfully, though, that motivation also came before Roach ever stepped foot on the hardwood.
Keels, who was drafted by the New York Knicks this summer, and Williams, whose Charlotte Hornets play at Brooklyn on Wednesday, both swung by Duke’s locker room earlier Tuesday afternoon, to catch up with Roach and Jon Scheyer and plenty of other familiar faces. But they also came to deliver a message. “Before the game, we talked to him: ‘Just lock in,’” Williams told The Athletic. “We played in here last year, so he already knew what it was, but we just told him to have a good game, be confident, all that.” Clearly, Roach got the hint, if his scoring the game’s first basket was any indication. The 3-pointer minutes later, plus the stare that followed, only reaffirmed that.
So give Williams and Keels credit, or don’t — “say it’s not them,” Scheyer joked with his junior point guard postgame — but Roach’s early-game effort obviously catalyzed the Blue Devils from the jump. That first 3-pointer was part of an early 7-0 run that put Duke ahead, and after Iowa countered with a 6-0 streak of its own, back-to-back 3s by Jacob Grandison and Dariq Whitehead again extended the Blue Devils lead. In hindsight, those early minutes — for Roach individually, but also the rest of the roster — proved prescient. Because for the rest of the game, the same script applied: Duke ripped off a run, and Iowa tried (and failed) to match it. By the waning minutes of the first half, Scheyer’s squad had opened up a 12-point lead over the previously 6-1 Hawkeyes, stifling leading scorer Kris Murray in the process. And in no coincidence, check out Roach’s first-half stat line: 11 points, 4-of-6 shooting, three made 3s, three assists and only one turnover.
“Jeremy,” Scheyer said, “was just really in control of our team from beginning to end: scoring, playmaking, leading.”
But here’s the thing about Duke, something we’ve come to realize and expect only 11 games into Scheyer’s inaugural season: no one can do it alone. There’s no singularly transformative talent on this team, no player of Paolo Banchero or Zion Williamson’s ilk walking through that locker room door. Roach can sink every shot, and make perfect passes every possession, but the team in totality is greater than any one game he can have.
Most nights, as it was again on Tuesday, that means a healthy dose of 7-foot freshman Kyle Filipowski, Duke’s leading scorer and rebounder; he ultimately finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, an impressive feat against what KenPom classifies as the nation’s 24th tallest team. Some nights, it’s been Northwestern transfer, Ryan Young, reversing and pivoting opposing bigs to death in the post.
Increasingly, though, it’s becoming freshman Mark Mitchell, Duke’s do-everything wing — and the vast array of his versatility was on display Tuesday to an extent it hasn’t been so far this season. Mitchell drew the short straw, so to speak, in terms of his defensive assignment: Murray, who came into Tuesday averaging 21 points and 10.6 rebounds, 3.6 of those on the offensive glass. Murray’s brother, Keegan, made his star turn a season ago and parlayed it into a lottery landing with the Sacramento Kings; now it’s Kris’ turn, with the 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward already No. 10 on KenPom’s player of the year ranking. For Mitchell — who registers at the exact same size and height as Murray, but with a 7-foot wingspan — it would be his toughest test yet.
And he aced it.
The best way to put it, probably, is to say Mitchell was a boa constrictor, slowly suffocating Murray’s offense. He was a shadow, never out of arm’s reach from the Iowa star, applying heavy ball pressure in denial and lockdown on-ball defense on the off chance of a completed pass. By night’s end, NBA scouts from 25 different teams were left wondering where Murray had gone. He finished with just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting, the first time he’s been held to single-digits all season.
“I tried to keep him off the glass as much as I could; I know he averages a lot of offensive rebounds,” Mitchell said. “Not let him get easy looks, and just pressure him all night, and make it hard for him.”
Mission accomplished. But while Mitchell was smothering Murray on the defensive end, he was doing the same to Iowa from an offensive perspective. And, to some extent, you’ve gotta feel for the Hawkeyes. Who wants to get in front of a dude that big, that strong, flying right at the rim with that much force? Uh, no thank you. So while Mitchell only attempted two shots and scored four points in the first half, after intermission, he turned up the intensity. He started cutting — hard — to the basket, finishing through traffic and punishing smaller defenders. “Jeremy (was) getting after Mark to attack the basket — and he did,” Scheyer said. The final result? Seventeen points, a perfect 5-of-5 from the charity stripe, four fouls drawn, and only two missed shots.
And, yeah, all that while also shutting down Iowa’s superstar.
“Mark’s defense on Murray, the way he drove the ball, rebounded,” Scheyer added, “it was a big-time game.”
For a team that came in allowing just 0.794 points per possession (PPP), per Synergy, it was a statement: that Scheyer’s style, at least with this squad, is working. In addition to holding Iowa to its fewest points all season, the Hawkeyes only scored 0.925 PPP and ended up shooting a dismal 39.7 percent overall.
“They were physical, they worked,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “I think they’re connected (defensively) — you have to give them credit for that.”
Despite Roach’s offensive outburst, this is still a team sorting out its identity on that side of the ball on a game-by-game basis. It’s usually Roach and Filipowski leading the way, but the third wheel of the tricycle changes based on the opponent.
The good news for Duke, though, is that multiple players have been able to fill that position. And if Mitchell keeps up his performance of late, maybe some of that variability ceases. But a stifling defense, a sharpshooting point guard, and egregiously good rebounding — the Blue Devils out-rebounded the Hawkeyes 45-35, the ninth time they’ve done so to their opponent in 11 games — is a pretty solid foundation to start with.
“That’s what it comes down to in March, right? You need to get stops,” Scheyer said, “and I think our offense will just continue to develop through the course of the season.”
But that isn’t to say it isn’t in a good spot already, especially not when Roach is locked in. It probably isn’t reasonable to expect this kind of rousing efficiency every night, but it’s becoming more and more common.
An idea: Maybe Scheyer just needs to keep Williams and Keels on speed dial.
“I was just joking with him before the game, get back to your high school self. This is him. That is him right there,” Keels said. “I already knew this was gonna happen … so I ain’t surprised.”
(Photo of Duke’s Jeremy Roach shooting against Iowa’s <ignore>Filip Rebraca</ignore>: John Minchillo / Associated Press)