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Duke freshmen not immune to growing pains

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Duke's trio of freshman starters have played so well so fast that it’s been easy to forget that they still have some maturing to do. Sunday at North Carolina State was that reminder.

In the Blue Devils’ 87-75 loss to the Wolfpack, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor looked a little more human, a little more vulnerable and a little more like freshmen than they’ve shown to be this season.

“We all have a job regardless of class, we’ve got to come ready to play,” Jones said. “We’re going to look at this and learn from it, regroup and try to get one on Tuesday.”

After hosting Miami on Tuesday, Duke plays four of five games on the road. The trio will either show how much they’ve grown or prove that they aren’t immune to hitting the proverbial freshman wall.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski accepts that Jones, Winslow and Okafor are expected to live up to a high standard on accelerated time. There’s a reason it’s the first time since 1983 that he’s started three freshmen for 15 straight games. They don’t have the luxury of waiting to develop because, chances are, none will be on campus long enough to become upperclassmen.

“They’ve got to go through it in a short time and be who most people Duke think is after three years,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s the bottom line. That’s what we have and we know it; we’re OK with it. We just have to do it.”

Okafor, Jones or Winslow has led the team in scoring in 12 of their 15 games this season. But Jones watched from the bench for five minutes as the Blue Devils made a run to cut a 17-point lead down to eight. Winslow fouled out for the first time this season and had his worst shooting performance, going 3-of-13. Okafor was at times lost defensively.

Through most of the season, they’ve all played at a level way past their classification.

Jones showed poise in his first true road game at then-No. 2 Wisconsin and controlled the game, scoring 22 points, dishing four assists with only one turnover.

Winslow carried the offensive load with 20 points and seven rebounds against Wake Forest, just as it looked like the Deacons had figured out how to stop Okafor inside.

And Okafor has been that rare big man who made his ACC debut with a season-high 28 points against a Boston College team that decided the best way to defend him was to be as physical as possible.

NC State coach Mark Gottfried said the Duke freshmen's early play has made everyone take for granted how good they’ve been. He saved his highest praise for Okafor.

“Think back way, way back, when we saw Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing as juniors and seniors in college basketball,” Gottfried said. “Those days are long gone. There’ll never be juniors and seniors in anymore, but he’s in that group. He’s in that category of guy that can change a game. You have to pay attention to him on every possession.”

Okafor finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds Sunday but was among several Duke players who admitted they weren’t tough enough against the Wolfpack. For Okafor, he was referring mainly to his defense.

The 6-foot-11 center allowed Wolfpack center BeeJay Anya to come off the bench and score a career-high 14 points. Anya, who hadn’t reached double figures in scoring all season, did not score a basket against Virginia. Anya’s efforts followed Wake Forest forward Devin Thomas going for 22 points against Okafor.

Okafor said the tight win at last-place Wake Forest should have served as a wake-up call for the intensity the Blue Devils needed to play with on the road.

“We should have lost at Wake Forest,” Okafor said. “NC State, they’re a better team than Wake Forest is, and they just capitalized on us not playing as tough. It’s was an unfortunate situation for us.”

It may not be as unfortunate as it seems in the bigger picture. Krzyzewski said Sunday’s loss was like a necessary lesson for the trio to learn the level they have to play on the road.

“You learn through experience how tough you need to be,” Krzyzewski said. “You may think you’re playing tough until you’re placed in another situation that requires a whole 'nother level. ... Were we as tough as we needed to be? No. But does that mean we’re soft? No. We need to learn to play at that level.”