David Duke and the Friars host Creighton Saturday (Photo: Butler Athletics)
By KEVIN FARRAHAR
David Duke and Marcus Zegarowski have been squaring off for a long time now.
Well before both matured into full blown Big East stars, the New Englanders were rising stars – and rivals – on the AAU and prep school circuit. Their journeys own several similarities and the lessons they learned well before they stepped foot on a college campus are only helping both All-America candidates today.
Neither was viewed as a surefire Division 1 prospect early in his high school career. Zegarowski was a key cog in Hamilton-Wenham’s Division IV Massachusetts state championship in 2015, but he was hardly a star at the time (he scored 10 points in the title game). Zegarowski picked up offers from old friend Pat Skerry and Towson, as well as Fairleigh Dickinson, after strong summer outings in 2015. He then transferred to the prep powerhouse Tilton School which had previously produced the likes of Nerlens Noel, Georges Niang, Bruce Brown, Wayne Selden, and Terrance Mann.
Zegarowski eventually worked his way from honorable mention all-NEPSAC as a sophomore to one of the best point guards in New England (albeit still underrated) as a junior, to a scoring machine as a senior. He put up one of the best performances in recent New England history when he scored 57 points in the NEPSAC AA semifinals versus South Kent. He also led Tilton to a conference title his senior year, besting current Friar guard Brycen Goodine and Villanova forward Cole Swider’s St. Andrew’s club in the final.
Duke’s path to stardom followed a similar one to that of Zegarowski. Duke won a Rhode Island Division I state championship at Classical High in the spring of 2016, and soon picked up his first two D1 offers — from Brown and Bryant. He transferred to Cushing Academy (a noted Tilton rival) that fall, and instantly went from Rhode Island’s best kept secret to one of the hottest recruits in the class of 2018. Duke came out of seemingly nowhere to win the Most Outstanding Player in a loaded field at the Zero Gravity Prep Classic in early December during his Cushing debut. His stock exploded from there.
Duke and Zegarowski grew quite familiar with each other in their final two seasons in the prep ranks. They met in the NEPSAC AA championship as juniors in 2017, with Duke and Cushing coming out on top while playing in Duke’s home city of Providence. Dreams of a senior year finals rematch were dashed when Cushing fell to Swider, Goodine and St. Andrew’s in the semis.
Friar fans recall that Duke chose to stay home and represent his home city school at PC. Zegarowski turned down many offers and landed at Creighton and while that’s a long way from Boston he clearly picked his college wisely.
Zegarowski was named Honorable Mention All-American by the Associated Press last season after averaging over 16 points and five assists per game, while shooting 42% from deep. He was at his best in the biggest moments, averaging just shy of 19 points per game and shooting 60% from the field in eight games against top-25 opponents. Creighton won six of those eight contests.
The preseason accolades came rolling in for the junior star this fall, the biggest when the league’s coaches voted him Big East Preseason Player of the Year. CBS Sports slotted him as the 4th best college player in the country in their annual top 100 players rankings.
Zegarowski likely brings a little something extra to the Providence matchups. He noted to Fox Sports last year that PC never recruited him. Instead, the Friar staff poured its 2018 backcourt focus into Duke and Massachusetts native A.J. Reeves.
With six seniors having graduated from Providence, Duke has exploded in his junior year. His emergence is not a surprise to Big East coaches, who named him 1’st Team All-Big East this past preseason.
Still, few could have expected Duke to break out to this extent. Already one of the best defensive guards in the country, he is now a two-way terror, averaging 19.5 points per game to go along with 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. He’s shooting over 46% from the field, 40% from deep, and 82% at the free throw line.
You could certainly make a case that no guard in the Big East – or even the country – is off to a better start than Duke.
Creighton holds a 3-1 series edge over the past two seasons, winning in overtime at home two years ago and erasing a five-point Friar lead with under two minutes to play in their building last season. The talents of Zegarowski and Duke were on full display that night in Omaha. Duke scored 24 of his career-high 36 points in the second half, but it was Zegarowski who canned a last second 3-pointer at the top of the key to snap a 74-74 tie with three seconds on the clock.
Providence got its revenge two weeks later, shooting red-hot from deep in a 73-56 victory over #21 Creighton. On that night, it was Reeves making a statement as he hit 6-of-8 three-point attempts and led Providence with 22 points.
When Creighton comes to Alumni Hall on Saturday they’ll bring with them a #11 national ranking, a 7-2 record (their losses include a 73-72 heartbreaker at Kansas and an 89-84 loss to Marquette in which they let a 12 point lead slip away), and the guard who they believe is the best in the conference.
Ed Cooley and the Friars likely disagree, and Cooley is already showing signs of chippiness ahead of Saturday’s noon tip.
“It’s funny, when I listen to everybody talk about our league, and they talk about this team and that team, Creighton has to play against a very tough Providence College team,” Ed Cooley told the Fox Sports 1 crew after Wednesday’s win over Butler. Duke shined in that game with 22 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists.
“We’ve got to be able to control tempo, with respect to taking away the three, making them take tough twos,” Cooley said, “but, you know, they have to play defense down the other end too, my man. Right? It’s not a one-way street. And in my street it’s called ‘do not enter’ when it comes to the lane.”
Duke and Zegarowski have crossed paths countless times but the stakes grow larger every time. Now they’re juniors, All-America candidates, rivals for Big East Player of the Year and both thirsting for an important victory.