USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach gives out her awards for player, coach and freshman of the year.
USA TODAY Sports
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Duke came here just a few days ago as a basketball team its coach admitted was still evolving.
Three games in three days later — all wins, setting up a trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game Saturday night at Barclays Center — and that coach likes the growth he’s seen.
“We’ve gotten better here; that’s the main thing,” Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said Friday night after No. 14 Duke beat No. 6 North Carolina 93-83. “We’ve gotten to know each other better. Playing against a team that’s really desperate in Clemson and two teams that could win the national championship in Louisville and North Carolina, (it was) just so opportunistic for us. And what everyone was saying about this bracket or that bracket, we just said we’ve got a chance if we can keep winning with a chance to play against the best in the conference. It’s been the best.”
Two second-half double-digit comebacks propelled Duke to wins, first against No. 9 Louisville on Thursday and then the Tar Heels on Friday. Jayson Tatum has been playing like the top-five NBA draft pick he is. Grayson Allen’s got his swagger back and even Harry Giles — whose likely one season in college has been largely underwhelming because of September knee surgery and the slow recovery — has emerged as an important contributor, finishing Friday’s game with six points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 15 minutes off the bench.
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In short, the team that looked, on paper, like it could be among the nation’s best entering the season … is finally looking like it might be among the nation’s best. It certainly has the collection of individual talent to do so. The question all season long has been, be it injury- or suspension-related, whether this team could coalesce in time to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
It might not; only time will tell. But what’s happening in Brooklyn this week sure looks like the start of the puzzle pieces coming together.
“Even when we had that seven-game winning streak, Grayson got hurt and Amile got hurt, and we didn’t have a continuation there,” Krzyzewski said. “This week, even the game in Chapel Hill, I thought we played well. We just got beat.
“So they’re getting to know each other better. It’s a good time.”
It’s also more enjoyable. Krzyzewski made a point Thursday of saying how much fun he’s having coaching this team right now. The players are gaining confidence, and feeding off one another. And it all shows — it’s not quite a team unburdened by the preseason expectations placed upon it (and its No. 1 ranking), but it might just be getting there.
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