The Maui Invitational tips off Monday with its most loaded field in recent memory. Three top-10 teams—no. 9 Auburn, no. 3 Gonzaga, and no. 1 Duke—will be joined by Arizona, Xavier, Iowa State, San Diego State, and Illinois to battle for a lifetime supply of Maui Jim sunglasses (or whatever the hell it is that the winner gets). The field is so stacked, in fact, that my sources in Tucson are telling me that Arizona coach Sean Miller is already sweating through his shirt just thinking about having to play three games in three days against this competition.
As great as Gonzaga and Auburn are expected to be, the real reason that all eyes will be on Maui this week is Duke. And folks, I’m not sure if you’ve been paying attention to the first couple weeks of the college basketball season, but this Duke team looks exactly like what Mike Krzyzewski had in mind when he sold his soul to the one-and-done gods all those years ago. After ripping no. 2 Kentucky apart limb from limb on the season’s opening night, the Blue Devils have positioned themselves as the heavy national title favorite, and for good reason. The consensus among mock drafts seems to be that R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish will all somehow be co–no. 1 picks in the 2019 NBA draft. Tre Jones looks every bit like a clone of his older brother Tyus, who led Duke to the 2015 national championship and was named that tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Marques Bolden, the subject of a million transfer rumors a season ago, has been solid enough as the default fifth starter, Jack White has been legitimately great in his role as sixth man, and Alex O’Connell fulfills an essential requirement of every Duke team that it have at least one player who is the perfect mix of talented and hateable.
In short, the only team I can remember making the masses foam at the mouth like this after playing just three games is the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats. That team, as you may recall, entered the Final Four with a 38-0 record before losing to Wisconsin. Its legacy remains complicated in the sense that opinions vary on whether that season should be considered a success. The Cats were dominant throughout the season, yet didn’t ultimately win the national championship. They beat then–no. 5 Kansas by 32 points in the Champions Classic in November, they held the lead almost every second of their 58-50 win over then-no. 4 Louisville in December, they won the SEC regular-season title by five games, and they won all three SEC tournament games by at least 15 points. Nine players from that roster have gone on to play in the NBA, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, and Willie Cauley-Stein. They were unequivocally one of the best college basketball teams ever assembled. But then, that is exactly why it’s so easy to label their season a failure. It seems almost unfathomable that a team so stacked could fall short of a national championship.
With that in mind, what should be a realistic expectation for this season’s Duke team? Even considering what the Blue Devils did to Kentucky, going undefeated is a ridiculous expectation for any college basketball team, much less a team as young as Duke playing in a conference as loaded as the ACC. The Blue Devils are going to have at least one night when things don’t go their way: Shots aren’t falling, key guys get in foul trouble, someone rolls an ankle, roles on the team get muddied, and the wrong player takes the wrong shot at the wrong time. Even Kentucky in 2014-15 had those nights and escaped a handful of close calls on its way to 38-0, most notably in January when Stefan Moody and Jarvis Summers went nuts for Ole Miss and came close to pulling off the upset in Rupp Arena. The truth is that a huge reason why that Kentucky team remained unscathed for so long is because the SEC wasn’t very good, which is a luxury that Duke—which will play true road games at Virginia, North Carolina, Florida State, Syracuse, and Virginia Tech—doesn’t have.
A “national title or bust” mentality is almost always an absurd standard. You could argue that programs like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and North Carolina should expect to win it all every season, but I would argue that you are an idiot who doesn’t understand basic math. There can be only one champion, so blue-blood programs aspiring to that threshold are destined to fail. Besides, if that were truly the case, coaches at these schools would be getting fired every three or four years. Even in the face of that logic, there remains an undeniable feeling that this Duke team, like the 2014-15 Kentucky team before them, has already been elevated to a “national title or bust” level. It might not seem fair to put that much pressure on a team so young after only a handful of games, but this hype machine is really a monster of Duke’s own creation. Coach K knew exactly what he was doing when he kept aggressively recruiting Williamson after already having commitments from Barrett, Reddish, and Jones. He knew exactly what he was doing when he took his team on a tour of Canada in August and allowed ESPN to broadcast its three games. And he knew exactly what he was doing when he gave ESPN behind-the-scenes access to make an eight-part documentary chronicling the Blue Devils’ preparation for the season. These decisions make sense upon realizing that Coach K has known all along that he might have a special team on his hands. After witnessing the destruction of Kentucky, and the endless loop of jaw-dropping highlights from Williamson, Barrett, and Reddish, America now knows that too.
Here’s the wild part: It doesn’t even matter how this season shakes out for Duke because the Blue Devils have already won. In the bizarre reality of college basketball in 2018, I’m not even sure national titles are the ultimate goal. That seems outlandish, but think about it this way: If you asked a group of NBA fans to name the first college basketball programs that came to mind, what do you think the most popular answers would be? I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that Duke and Kentucky would be the top two in some order and that Kansas would likely come in third, despite the fact that North Carolina, UConn, Villanova, and Florida have all won more titles in this century than Kentucky or Kansas, and Carolina and UConn have won as many in that same span as Duke. Yet you’re more likely to find a gray hair on Coach K’s head than an NBA fan who would name UConn and Florida before Duke and Kentucky. The reason they exist on the forefront of the casual fan’s mind is because they are playing a completely different game from everyone else. I’m not even talking about their willingness to have significant roster turnover from year to year. I’m talking about the entire marketing and branding machines created by John Calipari, Coach K, and, to a lesser extent, Bill Self.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: What does a successful season look like for this Duke team? Given what we’ve seen so far, it feels preposterous to think that falling short of a national title can be viewed as anything but a failure. But let’s flesh out a hypothetical: What if Duke finishes third in the ACC regular-season standings, loses in the ACC tournament title game, and then gets upset in the Sweet 16 … but Barrett, Williamson, and Reddish continue to absolutely wreck everyone in their path and end up being the top three picks in the 2019 NBA draft in some order? Would you be able to say with a straight face that (a) you wouldn’t fondly remember this team in 10 years or (b) the Duke machine wouldn’t have benefited greatly from this team’s existence? Obviously not, right? Shoot, as much as I want to believe that Kentucky’s program failed when it didn’t win the 2015 title, the reality is that nine future NBA players (so far) came through Lexington after that “failure.” NINE! In three years! Meanwhile, Duke has “failed” by not winning a regular-season ACC title since 2010, yet the Blue Devils have been ranked in the top five at some point in each of the nine seasons since and have been ranked no. 1 in five of those seasons, including this one. I’ll say it once more: The two biggest goliaths in college basketball don’t win nearly as much as one might assume, and it ultimately doesn’t matter one bit. Because what they do succeed at is feeding their branding machines and perpetuating a cycle of hype that cannot be slowed down by early exits in the NCAA tournament or fifth-place conference finishes.
I acknowledge that Duke and Kentucky have won a ton in recent years, and I don’t mean to suggest that this Duke team is all hype. I’m completely on board with the early vibe that college basketball is going to be Duke vs. The Field this season. The issues that have typically stymied Duke in recent seasons—namely chemistry problems and no desire to play defense—don’t seem to be an issue with this group. But even if the wheels somehow end up falling off, the Blue Devils have already won. They’ve captured the attention of the basketball world and have me writing articles like this instead of covering the Big Ten’s surprisingly great start, Villanova’s implosion, CJ Massinburg’s 43-point game at West Virginia, or how unstoppable Gonzaga looks. That’s why the rest of this season is really just a formality for Duke. Maybe they’ll win another shiny trophy and hang another banner in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Maybe they won’t. It’s not even Thanksgiving, and Duke is the one program that America can’t stop talking about. So if Coach K wants to go ahead and give the rest of America a chance by benching Williamson, Reddish, and Barrett to make sure they don’t get injured before the draft, well, I think I speak for every fan base in college basketball when I say that we would be totally cool with that.