INDIANAPOLIS — It was the 1982-83 season, Mike Krzyzewski’s third at Duke, and his program was just beginning to get off the ground.
That Blue Devils team would win only 11 games, but the starting lineup belonged almost entirely to freshmen — Johnny Dawkins, Mark Allure, David Henderson, Jay Bilas. By the time they were seniors, they were cruising to 37 victories and an appearance in the national championship game.
Krzyzewski has had countless national contenders since then, but what he hasn’t had since 1982-83 — until now — is a regular starting lineup with at least three freshmen in it. There’s Tyus Jones, a playmaking point guard with a deft three-point touch. There’s Justise Winslow, a left-handed slasher with huge scoring ability.
And there’s the other guy — the best freshman in college basketball and quite possibly the best player in the country. He is 6-11, 270-pound Whitney Young alum Jahlil Okafor, and he was every bit as good as advertised in his first big-time college game, an 81-71 victory for No. 4 Duke over No. 18 Michigan State.
Many came to see No. 1 Kentucky take on No. 5 Kansas in the nightcap of the Champions Classic. Those teams are loaded with freshmen, too, including former Curie big man Cliff Alexander, whose Jayhawks were blown out of the gym 72-40.
But there’s only one Okafor, and even the diehards from Lexington and Lawrence had to know it.
Okafor scored on Duke’s first two possessions. He made eight field goals in all, on only 10 shots, and many were of the old-school, low-post variety. A spin off his right foot to the left baseline. A burly shoulder into a helpless defender and then a soft 12-foot jumper in his face. A flick of his arm to shed a double team and lay in his final basket.
“I want to be the most dominant I can be,” he said after a 17-point outing in which he, Jones and Winslow combined for 49.
Think Tim Duncan, only stronger. Think Dwight Howard, only more determined. Think former Simeon star Jabari Parker — last year’s Duke one-and-done sensation — only more dominant.
Think a combination the likes of which doesn’t exist in the NBA — where Okafor almost certainly will be this time next year, most likely as a No. 1 overall pick.
“He’s a different kind of dude,” Spartans junior Matt Costello said.
Over three games for the 3-0 Blue Devils, Okafor has made 25 of 30 field goals and not been tested yet. Michigan State (1-1) — long known as the Big Ten’s most physical program — encountered what many other good teams will this season, a true center who’s simply too big and too good to play anywhere other than on the sport’s biggest stage.
“A national championship,” he said. “That’s the goal. That’s the main reason I came here.”
It’s a real possibility. This will be a historic season at Duke regardless. Krzyzewski, college hoops’ all-time leader in victories, will win his 1,000th game in late January or early February, shortly before his 68th birthday. How much longer will he coach? Will Okafor deliver him one last national title?