For months, college hoops fans have been bombarded with mixtapes and columns and magazine spreads highlighting Duke’s star-studded recruiting class. The hype machine was working at maximum power, pumping up the vaunted freshman trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish. Injuries prevented fans from seeing the team at full strength during a preseason jaunt through Canada. That changed at the Champions Classic on Tuesday, when the full might of Duke’s menacing attack was on full display, and college basketball gained a clearer picture of its new reality: There is Duke, and then there is everyone else.
Duke trounced Kentucky, 118–84, in a game that seemed over not long after the opening tip. The word on Duke coming into this season was that, while supremely talented on the wing, streaky shooting could down its championship ambitions. The Blue Devils did not take long to dispel that notion. Reddish, the best shooter of Duke’s freshman class, knocked down two deep balls in the first four minutes, while point guard Tre Jones and Williamson each added one of their own early in the first half. As a team, the Blue Devils finished the game shooting 54.4 percent from the field, knocking down 46.2 percent beyond the arc. By halftime, they led by 17. Before game’s end, that lead ballooned to 37.
“I’m taking Zion Williamson first if I have the No. 1 pick. He is one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen on a basketball court.” – @BillSimmons— The Ringer (@ringer) November 7, 2018
“If those guys are all healthy? They’re winning the national championship.” – @HousefromDC @ZionW32 and @DukeMBB put on a SHOW. pic.twitter.com/9wd2IdAhWy
The Blue Devils opened the game with a more traditional lineup, starting Marques Bolden at center with Williamson playing the 4, rather than as a small-ball 5, where some believe he’d thrive. At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, Williamson would be the second-heaviest player in the NBA this season, behind L.A. Clippers skyscraper Boban Marjanovic, who checks in at 7-foot-3 and 290. He also set Duke’s vertical leap record — impressive given his size, sure, but not particularly surprising for anyone blessed enough to have seen his high school dunk mixtapes. And though most recognize his physical prowess, it was his skill that impressed in Indianapolis.
In addition to his early 3, Williamson added a clean-looking jumper from just inside the arc, and weaved through the lane with equal parts finesse and power. He finished 11-of-13 from the field for 28 points to go with seven rebounds. His fellow first-years Barrett, Reddish, and Jones added 33, 22, and six, respectively. By halftime, Duke’s freshmen had logged 51 of the team’s 59 points. By game’s end, they’d combined for 89.
RJ Barrett and Zion's first buckets of the year:— ESPN (@espn) November 7, 2018
How Barrett, Williamson, and Reddish would share the floor was a question coming into the season; three players, all ostensibly playing the same position, and all ranked in the top five among incoming freshmen, had to find a way to share the spotlight in what figures to be their lone season in college. If Tuesday night was any indication, fears about the trio playing together were unfounded. When they were on the court at the same time, Kentucky’s defense was forced to pick which superstar to spotlight, leaving the other two with easier looks at the basket. When their minutes were staggered, each of them had the freedom to attack the rim or pull up for jumpers at will. Last season, Duke broke triple digits just three times, against lowly Saint Francis and Evansville and in a high-scoring showdown with no. 24 Florida State. Against the Wildcats, the Blue Devils hit 100 with more than seven minutes remaining.
It wasn’t just how Duke filled it up against Kentucky, but how it stopped the Wildcats from doing the same. John Calipari’s star-studded lineup floundered against Duke’s man-to-man defense, shooting 44.1 percent from the floor and 23.5 percent from deep. With even less veteran leadership than is normally expected on a squad highlighted by so many potential one-and-dones, Duke’s effort on the defensive end was superb. Last year, Mike Krzyzewski relied on a 2–3 zone to make up for his team’s defensive deficiencies, attempting to use the gimmick to shut down passing and driving lanes, and force opponents to score from deep. How successful the strategy was depends on your expectations. Duke’s trip to the Elite Eight was its first since 2015, and fourth this decade. But considering the talent at Krzyzewski’s disposal each season, that isn’t far enough. As is so often the case in Durham and Lexington, it’s championship or bust.
The Blue Devils weren’t flawless on Tuesday. Kentucky graduate transfer Reid Travis found some success early bullying Duke inside, and guard Keldon Johnson was the only Wildcat to break double figures in the first frame, tallying 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting before the break. The two finished as Kentucky’s leading scorers, notching 22 and 23 points, respectively. And some issues with foul trouble — six Devils had at least three fouls — could make things difficult for a team without much upperclassman leadership.
Expecting Duke to replicate this performance every night is likely foolish. No, the Blue Devils probably won’t win every game by 25 points. No, they probably won’t be the first men’s team to go undefeated since the 1975–76 Indiana Hoosiers. But they could win the national championship. And they could play some fun basketball along the way. The race to a title began on Tuesday night. And now we have a front-runner.