While much of the country spent Tuesday night watching election results and stressing over needles, the Duke men’s basketball team was making a statement of purpose. The Blue Devils absolutely creamed the Kentucky Wildcats, 118–84. As far as early returns go, the performance renders the rest of the season moot. Duke has more talent than any other team and many entire conferences. There is no need for a recount.
Given that this was the first game of the season for both teams, the white flag might seem a tad premature. But Tuesday night felt different. The Associated Press preseason poll had the Wildcats ranked higher than No. 4 Duke, but it took only a few minutes for that small “2” beside Kentucky’s name on ESPN’s chyron to look like an ironic joke. That it remained there for the duration of the beatdown was just cruel.
Duke is not taking anyone by surprise. Mike Krzyzewski put together perhaps the best recruiting class of the one-and-done era. The Blue Devils’ starting lineup features four freshmen: R.J Barrett, the top-ranked high school player in the country last year; Cam Reddish, the second-ranked player; Zion Williamson, the third-ranked player; and Tre Jones, who was ranked a paltry ninth among all high schoolers last season. It’s a promising bunch, to say the least, but they somehow managed to make the astronomically high expectations seem quaint against Kentucky.
Much like Kentucky’s defense, I don’t have the ability to cover all of Duke’s freshman stars right now. Instead, let’s focus on Williamson, who scored 28 points in 23 minutes. The forward’s insane dunks made him an Instagram star, and it turns out those viral snippets actually underplayed just how good he can be on the court. At somewhere between 270 and 285 pounds, depending on which reports you believe, the 6-foot-7 Williamson would potentially be the second-heaviest player in the NBA right now. (The Clippers’ Boban Marjanović is listed at 291 pounds, but he is 7-foot-3 and may actually be an optical illusion.) Williamson is massive, but he moves like an Olympic sprinter and runs a mean fast break.
If NASA received adequate funding, the agency would be able to build something like Williamson. He plays like the offspring of Charles Barkley and the Queen Mary 2. He also has a pretty sweet 3-point stroke, which is something that didn’t make it into many of those dunk-filled Instagram vids.
Please remember that Williamson is, according to high school rankings, Duke’s third-best player. Barrett put up 33 points on Tuesday, and Reddish added 22. (Jones, clearly the Ringo of this group, scored only 6 points.) Krzyzewski’s brave experiment of putting the best teenagers in the world in one lineup has already yielded the desired results. We’ve seen enough. The right thing to do is to let them relax until the NBA draft, after which they will mercifully be placed on separate teams.
Rather than steamrolling the likes of Eastern Michigan and Stetson University while also inducing serious emotional trauma in their helpless opponents, Williamson, Barrett, Reddish, and co. may be better served using this time as a sort of gap year before the pros. They’d be able to explore their talents on a more level playing field, like trying out for the campus a capella group. Why should Zion risk physical injury on the basketball court when he could take another kind of risk on stage with one of Duke’s premier sketch troupes? Given how easy it was for them to dismantle the No. 2 team in the country, I’m much more curious to learn about these guys’ improv chops.
Sure, a national championship is far from guaranteed, and great recruiting classes often fall short. Kentucky’s 2010 squad with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins lost in the Elite Eight, and last year’s Duke team fell at the same stage of the NCAA tournament despite having two freshmen, Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., go on to become top 10 picks in the NBA draft. The old cliché is that anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament, but this season’s Blue Devils squad will put that assumption to the test. That is, assuming the games don’t conflict with any a capella concerts.