Jeremy Roach kept working to be ready for his moment, even as he bounced in and out of Duke’s starting lineup filled with NBA talent.
That’s why the smallest player in the rotation keeps coming up big for the Blue Devils in their push to send off retiring Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski with one final championship run.
The 6-foot-2, 172-pound sophomore has seized a vital role with his ability to pressure the ball defensively and his improved scoring over the final month. That includes Sunday’s NCAA Tournament win against Michigan State to secure a spot in this week’s Sweet 16, when Roach finished with 15 points and a critical late 3-pointer in a comeback victory.
“Just the biggest thing for me is keeping that same confidence and consistency and the hard work,” Roach said. “That’s the biggest key: Just stay level-headed and don’t get too big when stuff’s going your way, don’t get too down when stuff’s not going your way.
“Just stay consistent. I know the coaches and all the players have trust in me. That’s it.”
Star talent has commanded the attention all season for Duke (30-6), the West Region’s No. 2 seed. It starts with 6-10 forward Paolo Banchero, a third-team Associated Press All-American capable of playing inside or out, and 6-6 wing A.J. Griffin, as freshmen widely considered high NBA draft picks if they go the one-and-done route.
There’s 7-1 sophomore Mark Williams, the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year and an elite rim protector ranking 10th nationally in blocked shots (2.89). And versatile forward Wendell Moore Jr. can run the point and take on top defensive matchups.
Yet as they prepare to face third-seeded Texas Tech on Thursday in San Francisco, the Blue Devils are getting a major boost from Roach down the stretch, too.
After averaging 7.5 points on 38% shooting through the first 30 games, Roach is averaging 13.2 points on 53% shooting in the last six. He’s also more accurate both at the line (82%, up from 73%) and from behind the arc (39%, up from 33%).
“These past four games, he’s been in a really great head space,” Moore said before the first-round win against Cal State Fullerton. “He’s done a good job running our team offensively. The defensive pressure he puts on is great. … Every time he steps on the floor, we notice it. We notice his energy.”
Roach started the first 14 games before the team shuffled the lineup and moved Roach to the bench in mid-January. That made room for Griffin. a 3-point marksman who had steadily progressed after missing most of his last two high school seasons due to injuries.
Yet that lasted three games before freshman Trevor Keels, another NBA prospect, suffered a calf injury. That pushed Roach right back into the forefront for another eight games before he again headed back to the bench when Keels finally returned to form.
Now Krzyzewski has again turned to Roach, though this time for a boost.
After a loss to rival North Carolina in Krzyzewski’s last home game and three uneven performances in the ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils spent the days leading up to their NCAA Tournament games in South Carolina working to find their defensive edge.
Roach fits that emphasis with his ability to pressure ballhandlers. His offense, though, went from complementary to critical against the Spartans.
He finished 6 for 10 from the floor, scoring on multiple tough drives that Krzyzewski described as sheer will in a pressure-packed game. The highlight was his lone 3, catching a feed from Moore and taking one dribble before launching over A.J. Hoggard with the shot clock dwindling.
The ball dropped through for a 78-74 lead with 1:16 left, part of Duke’s game-ending 20-6 run after trailing by five near the five-minute mark with their season in peril.
Those plays all stood out to Michigan State Hall of Famer Tom Izzo.
“You talk about their guys,” Izzo said. “I really thought – it will sound a little crazy to you, but their two best players in my mind were Roach and Moore.”
If Roach can keep that going, it will be even tougher to halt Krzyzewski’s last ride.
“We’ve never stopped believing in him because he’s believable,” Krzyzewski said. “He deserves it.”
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap
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