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Duke's Unprecedented Debut Resets the Expectations for a Special Season

The distractions ahead for a freshman-laden Duke team that demolished Kentucky 118–84 on college basketball's opening night may be the only thing capable of slowing down the Blue Devils.

INDIANAPOLIS — The beatdown might just end up a footnote, as season openers often do, or maybe something of an oddity. Duke over Kentucky, 118–84. Game One, no matter the combatants, tends to be more a directional lodestar for a team’s course than a statement of fate. It was frighteningly easy to consider that for the Blue Devils, Tuesday night could reasonably be read both ways.

While it’s not clear how Duke didn’t open the season ranked as the top team in the country, one could accept it on the grounds that people have a hard time quantifying things they’ve never seen before. It won’t last. While deploying three freshmen who transcend the traditional spectrum of positionality, likely ticketed for the first three selections in the NBA draft, the brutality of Duke’s brushstrokes told the story better than the scoreboard. There’s not another team in the country capable of stretching a 37-point lead against Kentucky, nobody with the personnel to play a style so free-flowing and relentless, and definitely not in a way that somehow looked and felt sustainable. The Blue Devils did it in a manner that felt like a death knell for the rest of college basketball.

After the game, Mike Kryzyzewski labeled his team an “unusual mix,” which was quite possibly the least-menacing way he could have framed it. R.J. Barrett, barreling toward the basket with loping strides, set a Duke freshman record with 33 points. Ballistic as advertised, Zion Williamson added 28. Cam Reddish scored 22 points that were more or less a forgotten number. Point guard Tre Jones steadied the ship, and emergent bruiser Jack White rebounded his way to a double-double off the bench. They ran few plays, had 26 fast-break points and never trailed. Rarely if ever do you throw three teenage stars who double as digital phenomena onto one court in the same colors and achieve instant balance.

“We have a special group of guys,” Krzyzewski said, “and the fact they all came knowing the others were coming says a lot about their security.” He emphasized this season’s focus on handing his players freedom, a lasseiz-faire approach to creative offense and a liberty that can be taken when four out of five players on the floor can push a rebound the length of the court via dribble or pass to spawn opportunity. It’s not often a team can honestly be described as a bad matchup for Kentucky. Just think of the 26 other teams staring down the barrel of this question, some of them twice before postseason play even starts.

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With the bar set impossibly high, Duke might only be slowed by the distractions. This was already the most hated program in the country. Although its best players planned for this, there will be noise to keep out, draft projections and comparisons to avoid, junk defenses to navigate, and (probably) losses. In some ways, Krzyzewski’s adopted, egalitarian style is a perfect antidote, favoring talent in transition over force-fed touches. There’s a team in Oakland that has dominated another league in much the same vein; they do not rely entirely on the perfect harmony of four teenagers and one ball. For better or worse, this is the sort of territory where a 34-point win over an opponent thought equal can take you. Tuesday night could be par for the course, but it was still the first game of the season.

By the time the rout (“a blow to your chest,” as described by Kentucky forward Reid Travis) was mercifully over and Williamson and Barrett flanked their coach at the podium, it was after midnight local time. Krzyzewski largely played defense for two tired teenagers, stepping in to answer and deflect some not-so-difficult questions lobbed in their direction. More telling than any bite of sound was Williamson largely failing to muffle his enthusiasm for the moment with a clenched jaw, instead forcing a grin toward the side of his face as he sat. Asked about his pregame approach, Williamson admitted he’d tried to temper his excitement: “You go in too excited, and things won’t go your way.”

If Tuesday was more indicator than illusion, each successive Duke game might challenge that mantra.