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Gonzaga-Duke key matchups: Coach K’s freshman class among the best in nation

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 25, 2021

LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga’s touted freshman class might finally meet its match Friday, fittingly in a town that’s always had a special knack for uncovering stars.

With three five-star recruits in tow, No. 5 Duke comes into town to face off against No. 1 Gonzaga, which for the first time in school history has two five-star athletes of its own. The Bulldogs’ 2021 class also featured a pair of four-star prospects, while the Blue Devils had one.

Mark Few’s group checked in at No. 4 on the 247Sports.com rankings, while Mike Krzyzewski’s came in at No. 6 – not too far from where both teams sit in the current Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Duke is sure to have a game plan for Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga’s shot-blocking, perimeter-shooting, ball-handling phenom, and three other freshmen – Nolan Hickman, Hunter Sallis and Kaden Perry – who could be pulled into action Friday night.

“I’ll start obviously by saying Holmgren is a terrific player,” Duke assistant Jon Scheyer said during a Wednesday Zoom call. “There’s not many guys like him. His ability to impact the game on both ends was very apparent (Tuesday) night in the UCLA game, so I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done so far. Obviously, I think it shows – him going there, he wants to play with other really good players, so I respect that and give a lot of respect for playing him on Friday.”

The Blue Devils counter with Paolo Banchero, the nation’s second-rated recruit – behind only Holmgren – two other five-star prospects, AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels, and four-star Jaylen Blakes.

College basketball fans and NBA scouts have spent months salivating over the Holmgren-Banchero matchup and it’s plausible the projected lottery picks will spend ample time guarding one another. If Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, more of a center on the offensive end of the floor, matches up against Duke big man Mark Williams, it’s reasonable to think the Blue Devils will stick the 6-foot-9 Banchero on Holmgren.

“Paolo has blown us away in terms of how coachable he is,” Scheyer said. “For a guy with the amount of hype that he had coming in, he always takes coaching, always wants to improve. His work ethic is as good as anyone on this team. So I start there, and then I go into his game itself. At 6-10, 250, being able to rebound, push the ball, really being able to score the ball at all three levels.”

“At the start of the year, he was turning the ball over too much. He had one assist and 10 turnovers. The last three games, he’s had 11 assists and one turnover. You think about the playmaking, the scoring and then the defending. He’s a complete player, and someone who is really just scratching the surface of who he can be.”

It’s unclear who the Zags will throw at Keels, a strong, physical 6-4, 220-pound combo guard who has averaged 13.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.0 steals. GU point guard Andrew Nembhard, who stands 6-5, could draw the assignment more times than not, especially after containing UCLA’s Johnny Juzang in Tuesday’s 20-point blowout of the No. 2 Bruins.

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