It didn’t take long Friday night for Duke’s players and coaches to realize they missed the Cameron Crazies as much as their famed fan base missed them.
For the first time since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly and stubbornly changed everything, the Blue Devils took the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium before a packed house.
Yes it was just for Countdown to Craziness, which included video highlight reels, dancing performances, elaborate player introductions and 24 minutes of Blue-White scrimmage play.
But the passionate energy in the building, flowing in equal doses from the fans to the players and back again, felt like stepping back into time. And everyone appeared to love it.
“It’s great to have you back,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told the fans during his speech between the two 12-minute scrimmage games. “We have really missed you. It’s been 18 months. It’s crazy. For our guys, you can see they responded well tonight.”
Only a few older players knew what it was like to play on Coach K Court when fans packed into Cameron. The others, like freshman forward Paolo Banchero, had to build it in their mind’s eye.
“I have been trying to make it up in my head what it would be like,” Banchero said. “But I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t know. When you got out there, it was electric. It was electric for Countdown. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like when we get opponents in here.”
That will occur Oct. 30 when Duke plays Winston-Salem State in an exhibition game. The first regular-season home game is Nov. 12 against Army West Point.
“It’s going to be rocking every single game,” Banchero said. “I’m excited.”
In calling Cameron “the most special place in college basketball,” Krzyzewski allowed that there are other buildings “that you can hear and you can see. There’s a lot of noise and a lot of activity.
“But the thing that separates this place from all others, is you feel here. You feel. If you feel, then you own it.”
Here are other things that stood out from Duke’s Blue-White scrimmage and the Countdown to Craziness show.
Coach K’s non-farewell speech
Not long into Krzyzewski’s address, he made sure to say he wasn’t giving a “farewell speech.”
No, he pointed out, he and the team have work ahead over the next six months, and they aim for it to end with the school’s 22nd ACC championship and sixth NCAA championship, with all the national titles under Krzyzewski.
“This year is not about anything final, last or sixth,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s about this moment. This is the start of our journey. This is about our banner. It’s about our house, and it’s about our commitment to taking advantage of this moment. And it starts tonight.”
Theo John, a major addition
Convincing 6-9, 242-pound Theo John to use the fifth season of eligibility allowed due to the pandemic with the Blue Devils looks like something that help Duke immensely this season.
After playing four seasons at Marquette, and being a starter over the past three seasons, John gives Duke an experienced, polished and physical big man.
The Blue Devils already have a star center in the making in 7-foot sophomore Mark Williams. But John will allow the coaching staff to give Williams the break he needs without seeing a drop-off in production.
Watching John and Williams go at each other on both ends of the court during Friday night’s scrimmage showed how much they are helping each other in practice.
“They are different players but both can protect the basket,” Krzyzewski said. “Mark can defend the ball screen until he gets tired, so we can sub in. Theo, I thought he was one of the better defenders in the Big East.”
Krzyzewski even mentioned that there could be sets that include John, Williams and the 6-10 Banchero on the court together.
“It would be a scary lineup,” Banchero said.
Already projected to be one of the top-five picks in next year’s NBA Draft if he leaves Duke after one season, Banchero showed flashes of brilliance while struggling with shooting Friday night.
Even at 6-10, he’s comfortable handling the ball in the open court and is an effective passer. He also took advantage of an isolation situation with 6-8 forward Bates Jones to drive past the former Davidson player and down the lane for a highlight-reel dunk.
But Banchero missed all three of his 3-pointers while going 1 for 5 at the free-throw line. It’s a scrimmage so nothing to sound an alarm about, but still something to monitor.
Keels is ready to contribute
Freshman guard Trevor Keels hit 8-of-14 shots in the two scrimmages, including 3 of 7 3-pointers. The sturdy 6-4, 221-pound guard is solid enough that he won’t get pushed around when facing veteran guards, and he’s comfortable handling and shooting the ball.
In the second scrimmage, Keels started with sophomore guard Jeremy Roach (his former high school teammate) along with Banchero, Williams and junior Wendell Moore Jr. With AJ Griffin sidelined with a sprained knee, that looks like a potential starting five if Duke had to play a game this weekend.
AJ Griffin update
Another solid wing at 6-6 and 222 pounds, Griffin has been out of practice since spraining his right knee during a practice on Oct. 8. No timetable has been announced for his return, but he was on the bench Friday night and was not using any crutches. His right leg was in a compression wrap, but Griffin didn’t appear to have any sort of brace on the knee.
When he was introduced to the crowd, he danced just as many of his teammates did and even moved side to side at some points, albeit gingerly.