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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Monday / October 23.
  • After Back-to-Back Wins Over Louisville and North Carolina, Duke Now Living Up to All The Hype

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    NEW YORK — In the final minutes of the latest chapter of the storied North Carolina-Duke rivalry, Jayson Tatum stood at midcourt of the Barclays Center smiling and clapping his hands over his head.

    Why not take a bow in the Big Apple?

    The 6-foot-8 freshman forward continued his scintillating week here in Brooklyn with 24 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists as No. 5-seeded Duke outscored No. 1 North Carolina by 17 points in the second half to win their semifinal matchup 93-83. The Blue Devils advanced to the ACC Tournament championship game on Saturday night against No. 3 Notre Dame, a 77-73 winner over No. 2 Florida State.

    In three games this week in front of a slew of NBA personnel and amid an electric atmosphere, Tatum went for 20 points, 9 boards and 4 assists against Clemson, 25, 6 and 2 against Louisville and now 24, 7 and 2 against the Heels.

    Duke (26-8) will have to win four games in four nights to capture yet another ACC championship, but the way they’ve looked in beating these three teams, would anyone bet against them?

    “It’s an honor for us because throughout the season, it’s been up and down,” Tatum said. “A lot of outside people didn’t know how good we were going to be or if we were going to live up to the hype and it just shows the character of the guys in this locker room,” Tatum said. “We just stick together the whole entire way and that’s just big for us.”

    Tatum and his Duke teammates know they have faced huge expectations from Day One.

    They were quickly installed as the preseason No. 1 team in the nation and were the easy pick to win the NCAA championship next month in Phoenix.

    But for large stretches of this season Duke battled injuries (to Tatum, Harry Giles, Marques Bolden and Grayson Allen), distractions (Allen’s behavior) and the absence of their coach (back surgery).

    They began the week ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll.

    But now everybody’s back and healthy and Duke looks like a team that could reach a Final Four and cut down the nets for a sixth time under Mike Krzyzewski.

    “We’ve gotten better here, and that’s crucial,” the coach said.

    “They’re getting to know each other and it’s a good time,” he added. “It’s a good time.”

    How much better could they get in the next few weeks as March Madness heats up?

    “I don’t think we’re at our best yet, I hope not,” Tatum said. “I hope we still keep learning and keep growing but I think we’re definitely clicking at the right time and showing people what they thought we would be in October.

    “We knew it was going to be a long road and we’re just getting better and learning at the right time.”

    On a night when the Duke trio of Tatum, Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard combined for 62 points, freshman big man Harry Giles also provided a huge spark off the bench.

    Once projected as a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, Giles has had three knee procedures, including one last fall. He told me earlier this week he knows the explosive style of play he was known for in high school has been replaced by a “boring” style.

    But Giles was far from boring on this night, going for 7 rebounds, 6 points and 4 blocks in 15 key minutes.

    “Harry the last two games has been terrific,” Krzyewski said. “The rebounding and he had 4 blocked shots. But the energy.

    “Harry’s coming off of some really bad injuries and a year from now he’ll probably get it. He’s put it all out there. And our guys have seen that and it’s been a huge lift for us.”

    Coach K took a shot at those in the media who’ve suggested Giles shouldn’t have played this year to protect his draft stock. He’s now projected as mid-first-round pick by DraftExpress.com.

    “A lot of people have said Harry shouldn’t play,” he said. “Harry wants to play, Harry wants to be a college kid and be on Duke’s team.”

    A year from now, Giles could well be in the NBA but his teammates know how special he is, even if he’s playing “boring” at times this year.

    Allen said he told Giles, “You might be playing limited minutes, you might feel like a role player but you’re not. You’re extremely talented and when you get out there act like it. ..And he’s learned that and he’s showed it.”

    Said Tatum of his good buddy Giles: “We know how special Harry is, at least I do. He’s been my best friend for a long time so just to see him getting back into the groove of being the best player in the country which he’s capable of being, I love that. And he’s just helping us so much.”

    If Giles, Tatum and the Blue Devils keep improving in the next few weeks, they may well live up to all the hype after all.

    “Hopefully we keep playing for a long time,” Tatum said, “and I just hope we keep winning.”

    Photo: ESPN

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    Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.