Duke makes great first im­pres­sion

Fresh­men star for Blue Devils in rout

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Scott Glee­son

When even five-time NCAA bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onship coach Mike Krzyzewski is sur­prised at how ridicu­lously good his team is on open­ing night, it puts into per­spec­tive just how mind­blow­ing Duke looked in its 34-point win against Ken­tucky.

“You start four fresh­men, no mat­ter how tal­ented they are, you never know what they’re go­ing to do in this en­vi­ron­ment against an out­stand­ing team and great pro­gram. And they re­sponded,” Krzyzewski told re­porters Tues­day af­ter the Cham­pi­ons Clas­sic in In­di­anapo­lis. Boy did they.

The Blue Devils’ elite fresh­men were ev­ery­thing as ad­ver­tised and then some. The three-headed mon­ster of RJ Bar­rett (33 points), Zion Wil­liamson (28 points) and Cam Red­dish (22 points) com­bined for 83 of Duke’s 118 points.

But the stat sheet tells only half the story. It was how th­ese teenagers in­tro­duced them­selves to the col­lege bas­ket­ball world. Bar­rett, who has am­ple in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing for Canada, got to the bas­ket at will and used his ver­sa­til­ity and smooth lefty stroke to shred Ken­tucky’s de­fense. Wil­liamson, a dunk­ing folk hero be­fore Tues­day night, proved he’s more than just an ath­letic tal­ent and a pretty darn com­plete player, poignantly ev­i­denced with a mon­strous block and then pin­point bounce pass to Bar­rett.

There was no short­age of high­light reels in the dom­i­nant per­for­mance, but it was re­ally the pace of the game that proved to be the differ­ence-maker. This team ab­so­lutely thrives in tran­si­tion, forc­ing turnovers and get­ting out in the open court. That starts on de­fense, but it’s also worth not­ing how co­he­sive this fresh­man-laden group looks al­ready in both half­court and full-court sce­nar­ios on Day 1. Point guard Tre Jones dished out seven as­sists, with no turnovers, and looks to be the ideal gen­eral to glue this team to­gether.

In the big scheme of things, though, what does one dom­i­nant night mean? Sure the Blue Devils im­pressed and even sur­passed the pre­sea­son hype. But they drubbed a Ken­tucky team that’s also young and still figur­ing it out. That said, the way No. 1 Kansas stum­bled late in its Cham­pi­ons Clas­sic opener against Michi­gan State, it raises the ques­tion of how differ­ent the out­come would’ve been against a team like KU with more ex­pe­ri­ence and over­all weaponry than Ken­tucky.

In re­al­ity, Duke lost vir­tu­ally ev­ery rel­e­vant player from last sea­son and played like it brought back sev­eral Al­lAmer­i­cans. Granted, the po­ten­tial top three picks in the 2019 NBA draft on one ros­ter will wash away the Grayson Allen era pretty quickly, but at the end of the day th­ese are still a group of young­sters play­ing like vet­er­ans and show­ing a team chem­istry that usu­ally doesn’t blos­som un­til Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary.

“I don’t think age makes much of a differ­ence with this team,” Red­dish told USA TO­DAY ahead of the 2018-19 sea­son tip-off. “Ev­ery­body’s un­selfish, and our coach­ing staff is go­ing to help us (ma­ture) fast.”

Early judg­ments from one glimpse of a young team usu­ally won’t fore­cast March net-cut­ting, but this Duke team is the ex­cep­tion. Se­ri­ously. Of all the teams that have wowed us in the past decade of the one-and-done era (John Cali­pari’s nearly un­de­feated 2014-15 Ken­tucky team among them), this Duke squad has a differ­ent anatomy.

With Bar­rett, Wil­liamson and Bar­rett all around 6-7 and mul­ti­di­men­sional, the Blue Devils can play a unique brand of po­si­tion­less bas­ket­ball, pos­ing night­mar­ish matchup prob­lems against any op­po­nent. This group showed some weak­nesses against Ken­tucky, let­ting its foot off the gas at points and get­ting into foul trou­ble. But not even a lack of over­all depth or size (UK had plenty more) can take away the fact that Duke has three, and maybe four play­ers, who Coach K can give the ball to at the end of the game in crunchtime sit­u­a­tions.

The pre­sea­son prospec­tus pinned this team at No. 3 in the USA TO­DAY Coaches Poll and No. 4 in the As­so­ci­ated Press poll. Suffice it to say Duke was un­der­rated be­fore this.

So let’s pose the ques­tion: Can Duke go un­de­feated in 2018-19?

“They’re a very good team,” Cali­pari said af­ter the loss. “If they play like that, they’re not los­ing many, if that’s who they are.”

The Blue Devils have some non-con­fer­ence tests against In­di­ana (Nov. 27) and Texas Tech (Dec. 20), but it’d be sur­pris­ing to see this team un­ravel be­fore ACC play — where No. 5 Vir­ginia leads five other top 25-ranked ACC foes.

But the short an­swer is yes, the pos­si­bil­ity of an un­beaten sea­son is worth dis­cussing.

The hype train wasn’t in full gear, so it’s fully rea­son­able to start it now.

ANDY LYONS/GETTY IM­AGES

Duke fresh­man Zion Wil­liamson scored 28 points in his de­but against Ken­tucky dur­ing the State Farm Cham­pi­ons Clas­sic on Tues­day.

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