INDIANAPOLIS — The most frighteningly dominant season debut in college basketball history may have taken place on Tuesday night.
It’s mathematically impossible yet feels entirely conceivable that No. 4 Duke entered this season ranked about, hmm, 55 spots too low in the polls? No. 1 feels like an insult after the display it put on at the Champions Classic.
We are just one day into the college basketball season, so let’s not overreact too much to the Blue Devils’ 118-84 victory over No. 2 Kentucky.
But what was that?
It’s Duke … and then the stratosphere below Duke … and then everybody else. That’s where the conversation holds at the moment. Because how else to come away from the absurd presentation put on by Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones on Tuesday night?
Second-ranked Kentucky, with its second-ranked recruiting class and its troupe of veterans, outscored the trio of Williamson, Barrett and Reddish by one point.
“Things went great for us tonight,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
They went supernatural, Mike.
What the Blue Devils did to a UK team rumored to be built for eliteness should be rendered illegal in the lower 48 states. A bulldozing of the Wildcats — and an arrival that detonated like dynamite within the first few minutes of the opening tip.
Taking into account the competition, maybe this is as good as Duke will look this season, but so what if so? We should bask in it right now, because that looked like the crystallization of elite recruiting and elite coaching, the likes of which might well never get matched again in college basketball if the NBA’s age minimum is voted out of existence in the coming years. Duke could well wind up having the top three picks in the 2019 draft. This sure looks like the evolutionary endgame of the one-and-done ideal.
The Blue Devils looked like an NBA team playing in an NBA arena — only the uniforms said Duke. (Which, frankly, feels interchangeable at this stage.)
“I shouldn’t say I’m surprised at how well these guys played,” Krzyzewski said, then added, “but to play on this stage, right away, against Kentucky, was a little bit surprising.”
Krzyzewski has had more than his fair share of great teams across his four decades of coaching. In recent seasons, he’s had freshman-laded clubs dripping with talent. There’s been some sweet one-and-done talent to don Duke threads over the past decade. But from a game-one reaction and perspective, there’s never been anything like this at Duke. Maybe there’s never been anything like this in college basketball.
It would be horrifying if it wasn’t so mesmerizing. Duke’s 118 points smashed the record for the most allowed by a John Calipari-coached Kentucky team. It was the most points scored in a game by Duke in at least 16 seasons. There has never been a season-opener that brought out this much potential and evidence of greatness so immediately. Consider that the schedule this season put the best matchup on the biggest stage right away. Normally Duke opens up against Elon or Marist or Siena or Presbyterian (those are literally the four previous opponents in the last four season-openers).
Kentucky brought out a whole new opportunity for immediate overreaction — which should be the only reaction. All of the Blue Devils’ hyped fab four freshmen showed up, showed out and embarrassed their Kentucky counterparts.
Duke treated UK like a directional NAIA school. It was a shot across the bow to the rest of the sport. And for those accustomed to hating Duke regardless of the circumstance, good luck doing so with players that look this entertaining.
Williamson, who is surely set to become the brightest light in college hoops this season, arrived with expectations and hype that would cripple most players. Instead, he broke the Duke record for most points in a freshman debut with 28.
Oh, wait, except fellow freshman R.J. Barrett — who looked for most of the night like he was playing against guys who have no business being on the same court as him — ended with 33. So that’s now the record.
“They were magnificent tonight,” Krzyzewski said.
In the locker room afterward, they pranked each other as each of them took interviews from the media. It was a refreshing reminder that these are only 18-year-olds — and they really don’t have any concept of what they just unveiled.
It’s impossible to condense the efficiency, power and talent of Duke’s performance from Tuesday into one clip, but this one does the best job of getting there. A one-handed Zion block, he takes the ball in transition, slices a pass on an angle through Kentucky’s defense and gets it to Barrett for the deuce. I’m laughing again watching this. Come on.
I asked Williamson about this play in the postgame press conference. As I did, he couldn’t help but flash his megawatt smile. He knew what he did there, above. He knew how it looked. How must it have felt? That is LeBron James-like stuff, and you know it. Toss in a 3-pointer to start the game and 11-of-13 shooting to boot, and yeah, Williamson’s got all the goods.
“That’s why I came to Duke,” Williamson said in the locker room afterward. “Coach K saw so much more in me than just a dunker. He lets me play loosely, be able to showcase my jumper.”
Williamson and his trio of freshmen teammates are all capable of bringing the ball up the floor. All can be playmakers. All look comfortable commanding an offense. If you saw the game in person or on television, you saw a team that looked different from any Duke team you’ve ever seen before. There’s a magnetism here.
“We played very well, but I’m not sure what our peak is — that’s just one game,” Williamson said. “We’ve gotta keep playing hard. We’ll find it.”
It might not take long. Duke was playing with a full meter almost all night long. Now we see how the team adjusts to becoming the biggest attraction in the sport.
“We’re trying to stay level-headed,” Jones told CBS Sports in the locker room afterward. “Coach mentioned to us that national championship isn’t played until April. This game, it’s a good start to the season. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
Keeping up with this pace will be impossible, but we’re going to love to watch Duke try. We’ve never seen anything like this team, and because of that, consider all the unpredictable extravaganzas that await over the next five months. It couldn’t have started better than it did and now the possibilities are not only exciting for Duke — they’re a best-case scenario for college basketball.
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