INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky fans flooded the streets and pubs of downtown Indianapolis before they filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.
But minutes after Zion Williamson cuffed Nick Richards’ shot in midair and threw a dime to RJ Barrett for a bucket in transition during the worst loss, and the most embarrassing loss, of John Calipari’s career, Big Blue Nation left the building.
“My nerves were pretty calm,” Williamson said about his attitude entering Tuesday’s 118-84 victory and his debut as a college player.
In the Champions Classic, Duke punched Kentucky in the face. The Blue Devils won by 34 points but it felt like a million. Williamson, Cam Reddish and Barrett — perhaps the top three picks in next summer’s NBA draft — combined to score 83 points. Tre Jones had seven assists and no turnovers.
The Duke freshmen, the No. 1 recruiting class in America per ESPN, were everything we’d imagined they’d be — and more. Williamson created enough highlights to demand a separate SportsCenter show. Barrett played like the No. 1 pick he’s projected to be. Reddish caused mismatches and impressed, too. Jones made it all flow.
“I’m really proud of my guys,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “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. They were magnificent.”
Duke’s dominance of Kentucky also added another chapter to Krzyzewski’s recent stronghold on the one-and-done talent pool. Yes, John Calipari started the trend, but Krzyzewski now owns it.
Tuesday’s win wasn’t a passing of the torch but yet another log on the fire that has smoldered in Duke’s favor since Kentucky’s most recent national title in 2012.
Those Kentucky fans who streamed through the concourses after Williamson plucked Richards’ shot from the air seemed perplexed, not just stunned by the result.
Like, what the hell did we just watch, and can it be stopped?
Before we analyze the hammer, let’s consider the nail.
This was Kentucky. The Kentucky Wildcats. The team that drew the No. 2 recruiting class in America. The same Kentucky squad that looked golden on its exhibition trip to the Bahamas over the summer after adding all-Pac-12 first-teamer Reid Travis. The No. 2 team in America.
This is the program that has made four trips to the Final Four under Calipari. The Wildcats don’t get many black eyes. They dish them out.
That’s why the ease of Duke’s effort in the Champions Classic should terrify the college basketball landscape.
Krzyzewski has assembled a program that’s equipped to excel in a climate that now favors small ball. Villanova has won two of the past three national titles with a lineup that featured ballhandlers and shooters at every spot.
This season, Duke could use the same formula to chase Krzyzewski’s third national title of the one-and-done era. But his small-ball lineup features a potential top-five pick at three spots.
It all starts with Williamson, a quagmire for Kentucky because of power that no player at this level can match and ballhandling ability that makes him difficult to defend. Duke outscored Kentucky by 29 points when he was on the floor on Tuesday, per ESPN Stats & Information tracking.
Calipari said Williamson’s effort against Kentucky’s big bodies was unexpected.
“It didn’t bother him,” he said.
Barrett is just a mature wing who could go across the street to the Indiana Pacers’ practice facility and claim a spot in the rotation tomorrow. Calipari tried different matchups against him. It didn’t matter. He didn’t have a player on his roster who could handle the Canadian star.
“It’s difficult because he’s a physical player and he puts it up in the ref’s hands a lot of the times, as far as the way he’s attacking you and he makes it difficult to guard without fouling and he puts a lot of pressure at the rim,” Travis said about Barrett, who finished 4-for-8 from the free throw line.
Reddish took advantage of the space created by his teammates’ success while also acting as a disruptive defensive force with four steals. Jones didn’t make many mistakes, while Kentucky’s guards committed six turnovers.
This was not a game full of ball screens and sophisticated schemes.
Krzyzewski just spread the floor and dared Kentucky to match up against a collection of top-10 picks.
That’s the reality for any team that will face this Duke squad in 2018-19. The Blue Devils are unique and dangerous everywhere.
The hype promised as much.
Right now, however, it appears the hype may have failed to prepare us for what this Duke team could become.
It’s the beginning of the season. If Duke continues to dominate the way it did on Tuesday night, we all know how this season will end.
“They’re a very good team,” Calipari said. “If they play like that, they’re not losing many, if that’s who they are.”
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