MAUI, Hawaii — In just the fifth game of their collegiate careers, No. 1 Duke’s talented freshmen will face their second top-10 opponent of the year in a semifinal matchup against No. 8 Auburn on Tuesday in the Maui Invitational.
Last year, the Tigers won a share of the SEC title but the memorable season ended with a lopsided loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The current group, however, is healthier and stronger than the Tigers from a year ago.
But is that enough? On Monday, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish both picked up two quick fouls in the first half of a 90-64 win over San Diego State and played limited minutes before the break. RJ Barrett recorded his fourth foul early in the second half.
San Diego State made 54 percent of its first 13 shot attempts. Williamson got off to a 1-for-5 start. And the Blue Devils still won by 26 points. Meanwhile, Auburn needed overtime and a spectacular effort from Jared Harper to finish off Xavier.
Auburn is a good team. But Duke might be a great one.
Of all the teams in Maui, however, Auburn boasts the most dangerous personnel to stop the Blue Devils. They have length. Their guards are fast. And they’re a veteran squad facing a young opponent on a quick turnaround.
“They have more veterans, but Maui puts you in unusual situations,” Mike Krzyzewski said after Monday’s game. “I think overall, those situations, if you handle them well, get you better. If you don’t handle them well, you lose. But you learn why you can lose. So it’s the way it is. … Some people say it’s like a conference tournament, and it’s not like a conference tournament because you’re not on a beach, you haven’t flown 11 hours, you haven’t, it’s not a conference tournament. The other thing is, by the time you have a conference tournament, you know the guys. You don’t need a scouting report as much, You’ve played against that team probably twice. And so it’s unusual. And so we get to see how our young guys do in that situation against a top-10 team, a very well coached team.”
It’s a pivotal matchup for both programs.
Here’s what you need to know:
Tre Jones versus Jared Harper matters: Entering Monday’s win over Xavier, Auburn was averaging 1.40 points per possession, connecting on 42.7 percent of its 3-pointers and forcing turnovers on nearly one-third of its opponents’ possessions with Harper on the floor. His speed and explosiveness were the differences in Auburn’s overtime win over Xavier. It’s up to freshman point guard Tre Jones to stall him on Tuesday. Xavier had success early in Monday’s game when Harper (five turnovers) struggled against the Musketeers and their lengthy, aggressive wings. By the end of the game, however, he was a force in transition and the most potent player on the floor. Jones has to reduce Harper’s impact on the game in the semifinal matchup.
Duke not intimidated by the moment: Multiple NBA general managers were in the front row of Monday’s games. But the Blue Devils did not seem intimidated by their presence or the environment. San Diego State’s fans traveled well. Everyone was here to see the Blue Devils, but Barrett, Williamson and Reddish all did things in their win over SDSU to justify the hype that surrounds them. That matters because we’re still talking about four true freshmen in a starting lineup on a big stage. But they’re just not affected by any of this. And if they maintain that attitude, they’ll be difficult to stop this week.
Auburn’s length its best weapon against Zion: San Diego State had early success by using 6-10 Jalen McDaniels against Williamson in their Monday matchup. He frustrated Williamson, who started the game 1-for-5, with his length. Auburn will turn to 6-7 Anfernee McLemore, 6-8 Chuma Okeke, 6-8 Horace Spencer and 6-11 Austin Wiley to disrupt the rhythm of Duke’s most valuable asset. That’s an incredible assignment for any opponent. But Auburn will suffer a double-digit loss, just like Duke’s past four opponents, if it can’t stay in front of Williamson throughout the game. Also, can they get back on defense and contest shots in transition? If Auburn’s big bodies can’t keep up with Williamson on the break, the Tigers could suffer an ugly loss on Tuesday.
Bench production will be a factor: After Williamson and Reddish endured early foul trouble, Duke’s bench outscored San Diego State’s bench, 23-10. Jack White had 12 points as a critical reserve for the Blue Devils. After his team’s nail-biter against Xavier, Bruce Pearl said he’ll need more from his bench, which was outscored 31-16 in Monday’s win, against Duke. “There was some guys that come off the bench that can’t be afraid to make plays,” Pearl said. “When you play teams like this, you’re not going to get stops unless you make plays.” The team with the most reliable reserves will have a significant edge in Tuesday’s game.
Duke’s talent might overwhelm the Tigers: Auburn defeated some of the most talented teams in the country last season, a list that included Tennessee and Kentucky. Duke has three top-five picks in a positionless starting lineup that’s stacked with finishers. The Blue Devils have an abundance of options. It’s a unique arrangement. Pearl said his team plays with a chip because most of his players were not highly recruited prospects in high school. The gap in talent between the two programs (and everyone else, for that matter), however, might determine the outcome of Tuesday’s game. Auburn is a good squad that can beat Duke. The Tigers have experience that Duke lacks. They’ll need a flawless effort to win on Tuesday, though. Duke has already defeated multiple good teams because they weren’t equipped to stand against their talent for 40 minutes.
Best show in town
After Vlade Divac found his seat in the second half of No. 1 Duke’s 90-64 win over San Diego State on Monday, he turned around in his chair to speak to a couple of fans positioned behind him.
“Can you guys see?” asked the 7-foot-1 former NBA star and current Sacramento Kings president.
The energized scene at the Lahaina Civic Center was additional proof that this version of Duke has the most fascinating collection of talent in college basketball since Michigan’s Fab Five.
Divac was just one of the high-ranking NBA executives who sat on the baseline to watch Duke’s freshman stars — Reddish, Williamson and Barrett — who could go Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the 2019 NBA draft.
At halftime of Monday’s game, Divac, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, Los Angeles Clippers executive Lawrence Frank, Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge and Golden State Warriors executive Bob Myers all mingled alongside representatives from dozens of NBA teams.
Yes, the Duke Blue Devils are the early favorites to win the national title. But they’re also rock stars even 4,700 miles from Durham, North Carolina, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
When they entered the gym during Auburn’s overtime win over Xavier, folks in the stands murmured and stared. Then dozens of fans grabbed their smartphones and snapped photos of the Blue Devils, who stood together next to the court as security officials warned anyone who got too close to the young stars.
They seemed unbothered by the pregame frenzy.
“I try to really just ignore it, just continue to work hard and listen to Coach,” said Reddish, who finished with 16 points.
It’s a constant process for a team full of former prep stars who, in just three weeks, have become the collective center of college basketball’s universe.
Late in Monday’s game, Williamson tapped a loose ball and made a run toward the rim. Everyone in the building expected him to do something to dazzle the audience, so there was a gradual buzz as he dribbled up the floor.
Fans began to rise from their seats. The NBA executives in the building perked up. And then Williamson lifted himself off the ground, put his forehead near the rim and completed the fast break with a windmill dunk that ignited the arena and populated social media feeds in the minutes that followed.
Right now, this is not just basketball.
It’s the best show in town.
“We got a lot of hype going around right now,” said Tre Jones, who scored 14, “and Coach has been trying to keep us real humble.”
After his team’s victory on Monday, Mike Krzyzewski mentioned former Associated Press sportswriter Jim O’Connell, who died in July. He was 64.
The Maui Invitational was one of O’Connell’s favorite events. In his honor, tournament organizers saved him a seat in the media room, complete with a nameplate and a lei on a chair.
Krzyzewski was staring at the memorial when he was asked a question about the game.
“Yeah, they clogged the lane,” Krzyzewski said in response before mentioning O’Connell. “By the way, I didn’t notice [the memorial] until they were asking questions. Brought a smile to my face to see the chair for Jim O’Connell and God bless him. This was one of his favorite, favorites, and he was the only guy to ever come here and never see the beach. And even coaches on the day off or something, we walk the beach … he wouldn’t do that. So that’s a cool thing. Repeat your question. I was in a different mood.”
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