PORTLAND, Ore. — Mike Krzyzewski talks regularly to his doctor. That’s how it works when you’re 70 and still working — especially if that work is sometimes stressful.
Stressful. That’s the word senior guard Grayson Allen used to describe Duke’s weekend at the PK80 Invitational, a three-game tourney in which the top-ranked Blue Devils came back three times, eventually pulling out wins against Portland State, Texas and No. 7 Florida after trailing by as much as eight, 16 and 17, respectively.
Those are the type of games that might cause one’s blood pressure to rise. But Krzyzewski, a Hall of Famer who’s won five national championships, isn’t worried about his health just yet.
“Your blood pressure is a lot higher when you don’t have good players,” Krzyzewski said. “We have a very talented player” — he motioned to his left, where McDonald’s All-American Marvin Bagley III sat — “and I believe in my guys.”
It’s easy to see why, after Duke’s did-that-really-happen comeback win over Florida in the championship game of the Motion bracket in a 16-team extravaganza that featured five top-25 teams. This Duke group oozes both talent and moxie. Often on a young team, you’ll find players looking around at each other wondering who is going to hit the big shot or make the game-winning play. So far this season at Duke, underclassmen are trading turns being the hero.
The night belonged mostly to Bagley, the newcomer who Krzyzewski calls “the most unique kid I’ve ever coached,” a 6-foot-11 forward who can guard all five positions.
Bagley was terrific inside (30 points on 10-of-20 shooting, 9-of-10 from the line and 15 rebounds) and Florida had no answer for him. Allen (14 points, seven assists and two steals) pointed out that type of double-double is usually loud and in your face. Bagley’s, by contrast, was “simple and beautiful,” a clinic in composure as Duke weathered multiple Florida runs.
But the play of the night might have belonged to fellow freshman Gary Trent Jr., who stormed into the lane with 1:58 left and ripped a defensive rebound away from multiple Florida upperclassmen. Trent might be a rookie, but in that moment he looked more like a tenacious veteran who understood his team needed the ball right away and because he was there, he was going to do it himself.
That possession led to another Bagley bucket inside to cut Duke’s deficit to one, and was followed by two free throws from Trent to give Duke the lead, 85-84. The Blue Devils would not trail again.
Trent finished his spectacular late-game stretch with a steal, which led to two more free throws for an 87-84 lead. Florida bungled its last look, and the three-point attempt that Egor Koulechov threw up while falling down barely drew iron.
Krzyzewski dubbed Trent’s last couple minutes “unbelievable.”
Trent, a 6-foot-6, 209-pound guard, shrugged off his late-game heroics.
“We needed the ball, and we needed stops,” he said. “So I was going to do whatever I needed to do.”
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Duke starts four freshmen alongside Allen, the only senior on the Blue Devils’ roster. This is a team with a lot to learn and a lot of room for improvement. If they’re scary now, they’ll be a nightmare come March. Krzyzewski said what’s impressive to him isn’t that Duke has been coming back with so many young guys — it’s that they’ve been doing it without much practice time. Sunday night marked Duke’s ninth game in 20 days, which means the Blue Devils haven’t had many days in empty gyms doing drill work.
“That’s what’s amazing to me,” he said. “We can’t improvise very much in a game because it’s not habitual yet. The only habitual thing is their will to win, because they bring that to us. So we’ll take some slippage in Xs and Os.”
Asked if he thinks Duke is able to come back from big deficits because freshmen don’t really know any better, Bagley instead attributed it to heart. He said the first three halves in Portland were not a great example of how Duke usually plays, but that he loves how he and his teammates keep fighting. Trent agreed. And multiple players pointed to Krzyzewski’s demeanor in every huddle, when he’s continually projecting total confidence in his guys.
“We’re so composed (on the court) because he keeps telling us, ‘We’re going to win this game,’ no matter what we’re down,” Trent said. “He’s been doing this a long time, so he’s always poised.”
Then Trent smiled and added playfully, “I mean, sometimes he yells at us. But for the most part, we’re good.”
Krzyzewki said that no matter the outcome Sunday night, he wasn’t about to panic. It’s only late November, and he’s aware that his team will look very different come March. What it’ll look like exactly, he isn’t sure. “I don’t have a vision right now,” he said. He intends to practice what he preaches to his players, and stay in the now.
Allen, the veteran, acknowledged with a laugh that’d he’d be fine in the coming months with replacing dramatic come-from-behind victories with good, old-fashioned blowouts.
“I’m not sure we can come back by 16 every time,” he said.
If they do, it might lead to heightened blood pressure for Krzyzewski. Fortunately for him, he’s got a doctor on speed dial. But more importantly, he’s got a roster loaded with talent.
Follow Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell.