The headlines, TV replays and talking head superlatives feature Zion Williamson, but it all overlooks a dose of Jones Family PG Glue that has held together Duke’s ups-and-downs this season.
Duke’s losses can all be traced to how much glue freshman point guard Tre Jones was able to apply.
There were swabs in Duke’s staggering 118-86 domination of Kentucky in the Nov. 5 season opener. And there was plenty in Duke’s three-game ACC Tournament blitz that finished with a win over Florida State in the final and clinched the No. 1 seed that was announced Sunday in the 68-team NCAA Tournament.
But the glue was lacking during Duke’s 3-3 record without Williamson while he recovered strained knee suffered after a blown Nike tire. Sure, Duke missed Williamson’s points and rebounds, but they still freshmen R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish that also considered lottery picks along with Williamson. The difference was the Blue Devils forced three-pointers and drives to the basket without Williamson.
The offense wasn’t flowing through Jones.
To a lesser degree, the same was true in the first loss of the season, against Gonzaga in Hawaii, and the second, when Jones exited early with a shoulder injury.
Tre Jones is trying to follow the path the Blue Devils took to the 2015 NCAA title with Tyus Jones, Tre’s older brother. That was the last time Duke was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Tyus Jones was the glue that held together the Blue Devils’ national title run, although two other one-and-done freshmen, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, overshadowed him with spectacular highlights.
It’s sounds familiar, but Tre is facing a tougher burden to shoulder than Tyus did. Tyus had Quinn Cook to help him. Duke doesn’t have an experienced guard on its its roster to help Tre thought tough spots.
Duke’s road to the Final Four in Minneapolis starts close to home in Columbia, S.C., with a first-round regional game against the winner of the N.C. Central-North Dakota State game. They meet Wednesday in the First Four round.
Duke’s renewed national title hopes are focused on Williamson’s three-game, 81-ACC tournament blitz. If Williamson seemed unleashed, with a multitude of scoring plays beyond his patented dunks, one reason is his presence opens up the floor for the remainder of the Blue Devils.
That is allowing Jones to better dictate the game’s flow without breakdowns into one-on-one hero play with errant three-point field goals and forced drives to the basket.
In the six games when Williamson was out and the Blue Devils forced the ball too much, Jones averaged 8.5 points and 4.8 assists. In the ACC Tournament, he averaged 14.7 points and 6.0 assists.
In the two losses to North Carolina Reddish shot 6-of-23 and 10-of-23 for 16-of-46 (35 percent). Barrett was only 10-of-27 in the second loss to the Tar Heels, although he as 11-of-22 in the first game for 21-of-49 (43 percent).
Jones’ low games in the six sans Williamson were three points (North Carolina) and three assists (Wake Forest). He had double figures in all three ACC games, with scoring/assists combos of 18/6, Syracuse; 11/4, North Carolina; and 15/8, Florida State.
A national title would be head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s sixth overall and second since Duke joined Kentucky as an NBA lottery combine campus. In the three seasons since the 2015 title, the roster was talented enough to threaten a Final Four trip but lacked glue to seal the deal.
— The 2015-16 team lost in the Sweet Sixteen round to Oregon, a Final Four team.
The freshmen that year: Brandon Ingram (one-and-done, Lakers starter), Luke Kennard (two-and-done, Pistons backup), Chase Jeter (transferred to Arizona), Derryck Thornton (transferred to USC) and Antonio Vrankovic (Duke senior backup).
— The 2016-17 team lost in second round to South Carolina, a Final Four team.
The freshmen that year: Jayson Tatum (one-and-done, Celtics starter); Harry Giles (one-and-done, Kings backup); Frank Jackson (one-and-done, Pelicans backup); Marques Bolden (Duke junior starter); Javin DeLaurier (Duke junior backup/starter); Jack White (Duke junior backup/starter).
— The 2017-18 team lost in Elite Eight game to Kansas, a Final Four team.
The freshmen that year: Marvin Bagley (one-and-done, Kings backup); Wendell Carter (one-and-done, Bulls starter); Gary Trent Jr. (one-and-done, G-League); Trevon Duval (undrafted one-and-done, G-League); Jordan Tucker (transferred to Butler); Jordan Goldwire (Duke sophomore backup with key playing moments); Alex O’Connell (Duke sophomore backup/starter).
Everyone will be watching Zion Williamson on Duke’s march to Minneapolis, but don’t overlook Tre Jones and his bottle of glue.
Considering that the Jones brothers are from suburban Minneapolis, Apple Valley, and Tyus will be in town while playing for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, it seems to make a Duke national title fait accompli in three weeks at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Timberwolves play Friday night (April 5) at home at the Target Center (before the Saturday NCAA semifinals) and Sunday afternoon (before the NCAA Monday night finals) also at home.
Pass the bottle of Jones Family PG Glue.