MADISON, Wis. — Outside Kohl Center, front row tickets sold for as much as $5,000. An ESPN crew assembled a SportsCenter set near the court, and more than 30 seats were reserved for the NBA scouts who flocked to town to watch No. 2 Wisconsin take on No. 4 Duke.
Less than a mile away, in his room at the Concourse Hotel, Blue Devils point guard Tyus Jones was unaffected by the hype. When his mother, Debbie, called him about four hours before tipoff, he was in his room watching reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“Just relaxing,” Jones said.
Such composure would’ve been admirable for any player before a game of this magnitude—but it’s almost unheard of for an 18-year-old freshman preparing for his first true road game against a team that advanced to last season’s Final Four.
“That’s what makes Tyus special,” Debbie said. “He never gets rattled. He never gets shook. The bigger the game, the better he plays.”
That couldn’t have been more obvious Wednesday, when Jones scored a team-high 22 points to spark Duke—which starts three freshmen—to an 80-70 victory over senior-laden Wisconsin before a sellout crowd of 17,279 on a cold night in Madison.
The only thing more impressive than Jones’ performance was his response to it. Moments after his live postgame interview on ESPN, Jones took a seat near his stall in a celebratory Duke locker room and put everything into perspective.
“This wasn’t an NCAA championship game,” he said. “It was a game in December. There’s a lot of season left. It was a good win for us, but we’ve still got a lot of room to improve.”
Jones’ poise and maturity are among the main reasons Duke, 8-0, has avoided the speed bumps that plagued last season’s talented, but young, Kentucky squad all the way up until the NCAA tournament. Those Wildcats lost 10 regular-season games and were given a No. 8 seed.
|Tyus Jones vs. Ranked Teams|
|vs. No. 19 Michigan State||4-5||2-3||0||4||2||17|
|at No. 2 Wisconsin||7-11||2-3||6||4||0||22|
That won’t happen with this Duke team, which is already in midseason form despite starting freshmen in center Jahlil Okafor, wing Justise Winslow and Jones. Granted, each of them is a potential NBA lottery pick, especially Okafor, the likely No. 1 overall selection.
But even the best players usually take a while to develop chemistry and cohesion with their older teammates. At Duke, it was in place before the Blue Devils ever played their first game.
Some of that is because Jones, Okafor and Winslow spent their high school summers competing alongside one another with USA Basketball. But part of it can be credited to the confidence Jones exhibits during moments when most players would cower.
“He’s an old soul on the court,” senior shooting guard Quinn Cook said. “He doesn’t play like a freshman. He never gets sped up or frustrated. He carried us tonight.”
Indeed, Jones scored 14 of his 22 points after intermission and helped spearhead an 8-2 run in the waning minutes that gave Duke a 71-62 lead and momentum it would never relinquish.
Jones made seven of his 11 shots from the field and was 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. He was one of four Duke players to score in double figures Wednesday, and that doesn’t include starters Winslow and Amile Jefferson, both of whom had off nights.
As a team, Duke shot a ridiculous 65.2 percent from the field.
“To have as many players (shoot well) on the same night ... that’s just not fair,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “They were lights-out.”
Okafor scored 13 points and snared six rebounds. But again, no one was as impressive in big moments as Jones. Okafor laughed when asked if he’s ever seen his longtime friend and roommate get upset or antsy.
“If I go in his room or eat all his snacks, that usually upsets him,” Okafor said. “Or if he’s the driver and I’m not ready on time. But on the court, he’s the same every day. Never too high or never too low.”
That’s not to say that Jones didn’t take a moment or two to relish what he and his teammates accomplished Wednesday. As the final seconds ticked away, he looked into the stands and saw about 20 friends and relatives who had driven about four hours from his hometown of Apple Valley, Minnesota, to see him play.
Parents of Blue Devils players were holding up their keys and taunting the Wisconsin crowd.
“Start up the car,” Okafor’s dad, Chucky, yelled. “Game’s over. Time to go home.”
Jones just smiled.
“It was great,” Jones said. “I’d never experienced anything like that—with the road crowd yelling at you and the student section and everything. It was everything I dreamed of when I imagined a college road game.”
Including the end.
Jerian Grant: Notre Dame’s standout guard—who missed the second half of last season because of academic issues—scored 27 points in Wednesday’s overtime win against Michigan State and is now averaging 19.5 points.
Miami: The No. 15 Hurricanes continue to be one of the biggest surprises of the young season. Jim Larranaga’s squad improved to 8-0 Tuesday by defeating previously unbeaten Illinois 70-61 in Coral Gables.
Emmitt Holt: A little more than a month after accidentally hitting Indiana teammate Devin Davis with his car, Holt turned in his best performance as a Hoosier by scoring 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting in Tuesday’s 81-69 victory over Pittsburgh.
Javan Felix: You won’t find many backup point guards as good as the Texas junior. Felix came up huge in Sunday’s 55-54 win against defending national champion Connecticut in Storrs by pulling his team within one, 53-52, on a clutch drive and layup with 21 seconds remaining. Jonathan Holmes won it for the Longhorns with a three-pointer on the following possession.
Purdue: It appears the Boilermakers are back on the upswing after missing the NCAA tournament the past two years. Purdue’s 6-1 record includes quality wins over BYU and North Carolina State, the latter of which occurred largely because of a 16-point, nine-rebound effort by Vince Edwards on Tuesday in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Karl Towns: After failing to reach double figures in his first five games, the most highly touted member of Kentucky’s vaunted recruiting class is clearly feeling more comfortable on the court. Towns is averaging 12 points and 8.5 rebounds in his last two games.
Michigan schools: The state’s two flagship programs—Michigan and Michigan State—boast solid teams. But I’m not sure either of them have a chance to be special. The Wolverines (who barely beat a mediocre Syracuse squad Tuesday) don’t have a standout inside presence. The Spartans, coming off losses to Kansas and Notre Dame, have nice complementary players but no stars.
Xavier: Chris Mack’s squad opened the season with five straight wins but has now dropped back-to-back contests against Texas-El Paso and Long Beach State. Not the best way to excite a fanbase.
VCU: The Rams have lost their trademark swagger. One week after a 24-point annihilation at the hands of Villanova, VCU was nearly upset by Illinois State Tuesday night. Shaka Smart’s team battled back from a 12-point deficit to win 66-62, but there are clearly some issues that need to be addressed. VCU, which also lost to Old Dominion, is 5-2.
Ohio State’s Shannon Scott vs. Louisville: A point guard, Scott entered Tuesday’s showdown with the Cardinals averaging a nation-leading 10.4 assists. But he had zero assists in the Buckeyes’ 64-55 loss. He scored just three points and had five turnovers.
Pittsburgh: What we’ve seen from the Panthers is highly uncharacteristic of a Jamie Dixon squad. The Panthers are just 4-3 with losses to Hawaii, San Diego State and Indiana, the latter two of which came by double digits.
Kelly Oubre: The Kansas freshman has logged the fewest minutes by any top-10 recruit since 2005, according to research by ESPN’s Jeff Goodman (subscription required). Oubre has netted just 50 minutes in the Jayhawks’ first six games.
Florida State: What’s going on in Tallahassee? The Seminoles, who usually field one of the most athletic teams in the country, are 3-4, with setbacks against Northeastern, Massachusetts, Providence and Nebraska, which led by 18 points early in the second half. Very un-Leonard-Hamilton-like.
Chris Walker: The McDonald’s All-American missed most of his freshman season at Florida because of grade issues and has basically been invisible for the 3-3 Gators so far this year. He’s averaging just 5.0 points and 4.5 rebounds off the bench.
North Carolina: Once believed to be an NCAA title contender, the Tar Heels shot just 27.9 percent from the field in Wednesday’s home loss to Iowa. That’s almost as bad as when they were outworked 29-14 on the offensive glass in last week’s setback against Butler in the Battle 4 Atlantis. But not quite.
Welcome to My Radar
Seton Hall: Kevin Willard, who entered the season on the hot seat, is doing a phenomenal job with the Pirates. Seton Hall will take a 6-0 record into Saturday’s game against Rutgers. Guard Sterling Gibbs averages a team-high 18.3 points.
Big East: Numerous teams from the conference are surpassing expectations. Butler beat North Carolina, Creighton topped Oklahoma, Villanova defeated Michigan, Providence upset Notre Dame, St. John’s bested Minnesota, Georgetown beat Florida and DePaul surprised Stanford.
Ben Jacobson: The coach whose Northern Iowa team upset No. 1 seed Kansas in the 2010 NCAA tournament has put together another Top 25-caliber squad. Should we really be surprised? The man can coach.
Washington: The Huskies’ three-year NCAA tournament drought may end this season, as Washington is off to a 6-0 start thanks, in part, to Nigel Williams-Goss’ 14.7 points and 7.5 assists (both team highs).
D.J. Newbill: The Penn State guard is as under-the-radar as they come. The senior averages 24.1 points and 2.9 assists for a Nittany Lions squad that is 7-1.
Old Dominion: The Monarchs are 6-1 with wins against then-No. 14 VCU, LSU and George Mason (on the road). Guard Trey Freeman averages 18.4 points and 3.1 assists.
Predicting This Weekend's Big Games
Texas at Kentucky: The Longhorns have one of the few frontcourts that can, at the very least, challenge the Wildcats foursome of Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Trey Lyles and Towns. But I still like John Calipari’s squad by double figures. Kentucky 66-53.
Florida at Kansas: Everything seems to be going wrong for the Gators. Forward Dorian Finney-Smith and Eli Carter have been out with injuries, and Walker has yet to make a significant impact. That’s not a good recipe when you’re going into the most hostile environment in all of college basketball. Kansas 72-57.
Gonzaga at Arizona: Not many teams in college basketball are as mentally tough as Arizona, but the Wildcats aren’t anywhere close to reaching their ceiling. Things may change in a month or two but, as of now, Gonzaga is the more polished team, especially on offense with upperclassmen such as Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr., Byron Wesley and Kyle Wiltjer. Gonzaga 64-60.
Virginia at VCU: The Cavaliers have played at a high level since the beginning of the season, while VCU has been inconsistent. The Rams have either lost to (Old Dominion and Michigan) or struggled against (Illinois State) teams that aren’t nearly as good as Tony Bennett’s squad. Virginia 58-51.
Wisconsin-Green Bay at Georgia State: Two of the most talented mid-major teams in the country square off Saturday in Atlanta. Georgia State is led by standout shooter R.J. Hunter and former Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow. Keifer Sykes averages 18.5 points and 3.8 assists for UWGB. Wisconsin-Green Bay 65-64.
San Diego State at Washington: The Huskies may be undefeated, but they’ve yet to face a team as good as the 15th-ranked Aztecs, whose lone loss is to Arizona. Still, don’t be surprised if Lorenzo Romar’s squad rises to the occasion at home. Washington 70-66.
Starting Five: Upperclassmen Who Are Finally Living Up to Expectations
Wayne Blackshear, Louisville: Underwhelming during his first three seasons, Blackshear is averaging a career-high 13 points. His 22-point effort Tuesday sparked Louisville past Ohio State.
Joshua Smith, Georgetown: Stymied throughout his career (both at UCLA and Georgetown) by weight issues and academic problems, Smith has been a beast for the Hoyas with 12.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
Norman Powell, UCLA: A complementary player for most of his career, Powell is leading the Bruins in scoring with 17.9 points a game while also contributing 4.9 rebounds and 2.4 steals.
Robert Upshaw, Washington: The embattled 7’0” transfer from Fresno State is finally getting into a groove after sitting out last season. He’s averaging 9.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in just 16.5 minutes.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: Inconsistent throughout most of his career, the Wildcats’ 7’0” center has been in attack mode all year. He’s averaging a career-high 8.7 points despite playing just 22 minutes per game.
Surprised they’re this good: Notre Dame
Surprised they’re not better: Memphis
Seat heating up: Brad Brownell, Clemson
Seat cooling off (for now): Mark Turgeon, Maryland
Better than their record: Kansas State and Illinois State
Not as good as their record: Texas Tech and Mississippi State
Win that shocked me: Butler over North Carolina
Win that shocked some, but not me: Ole Miss over Creighton
Needs a hug: Josh Pastner, Memphis coach
Deserves a high-five: Jay Wright, Villanova coach
A Dozen Words About My Top 12 Teams
1. Kentucky: Could the Wildcats be one of the best defensive teams in history?
2. Duke: Don’t be surprised if the Blue Devils occupy this slot all season.
3. Wisconsin: Would a healthy Sam Dekker have made a difference against Duke Wednesday?
4. Gonzaga: Anyone who doesn’t take this team seriously needs to watch them Saturday.
5. Arizona: The Wildcats’ trademark defense needs to be at its best against Gonzaga.
6. Louisville: Sophomore guard Terry Rozier is blossoming into a star for the Cardinals.
7. Villanova: A pair of tough nonconference games remain against Illinois and Syracuse.
8. Kansas: Point guard Frank Mason has apparently solidified his spot as a starter.
9. Virginia: All but one of the Cavaliers’ wins have come by double digits.
10. San Diego State: The Aztecs haven’t played since falling to Arizona in Maui title game.
11. Texas: Myles Turner is averaging 16.7 points, 8.3 rebounds in last three games.
12. Wichita State: Wednesday’s loss at Utah marked Shockers’ first regular-season defeat since 2013.
Press Row Chatter: Recent Topics Discussed at the Pregame Dining Table
The best players to interview in college basketball (2014-15 edition):
- Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
- Jahlil Okafor, Duke
- Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
- Johnathan Motley, Baylor
- Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Places I plan to eat at during this weekend’s Chicago-Dallas-Waco trip:
- Giordano’s Pizzeria in Chicago: Pepperoni, sausage, mushroom with thin crust.
- Garrett Popcorn Shops in Chicago: Caramel and cheese mix, please.
- Sissy’s, Dallas: Haven’t been, but I hear the fried chicken is delish.
- Pepe & Mitos, Dallas: Hard to find good Mexican food in Kansas City, Wisconsin, Illinois and New York City, which is where I’ve been for the past month.
- George’s Bar & Grill: Planning to go both before and after Baylor’s win over Kansas State Saturday for chicken club tacos, chicken fried steak, crazy wings and, of course, a Big O or seven.
Trendy college basketball phrases and terms that annoy me:
- Chippy: Weak-sounding word for a term used to describe pushing, shoving and taunting.
- Score the ball: What else are you going to score?
- Deceptively athletic: It’s OK to say a white guy is athletic.
- “The ball was sticking tonight”: Don’t beat around the bush, coach. Your players were selfish.
- “Are you kidding me?”: Um, no, Mr. Broadcaster. I’m not. What does that even mean?
Best pro wrestling finishing moves:
- DDT, Jake “The Snake" Roberts: Am I the only one who used to try this on my friends?
- Sweet Chin Music/Superkick, Shawn Michaels/Chris Adams: So tough to execute without legitimately hurting your opponent.
- Greetings from Asbury Park, Bam Bam Bigelow: The move was just OK, but I love the name.
- Hurricanrana off the top rope, Lita/Juventud Guerrero, countless others: Wow. Mad respect for anyone who can pull this off.
- Off the top rope and through a table, Dudley Boyz: Bubba Ray’s “trance” at the end was the cherry on top.
Wing Bucket, Dallas: Dallas used to be weak when it came to wings. Not anymore. This is easily the best bird in the city, and also some of the best in the country. I’ve loved all of the flavors I’ve sampled (regular buffalo, Sriracha madness, sour cream and onion, Jamaican jerk, garlic parmesan, margarita chile—and, yes, even peanut butter and jelly). The wings are cooked perfectly. The skin has just the right amount of crispness without being overcooked. Order the lemon pepper fries and the spicy baked beans, and thank me later. Don’t be surprised if this place adds some new locations soon. One in Kansas City would be nice (wink, wink).
Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR .