It was billed as a battle of equals. Duke didn’t get the memo.
Behind the incredible freshmen trio of RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish, the No. 4 Blue Devils scored 59 points in the first half, 59 in the second and cruised to a shockingly dominant 118-84 win over No. 2 Kentucky in the second game of Tuesday night’s Champions Classic. Three thoughts on Duke’s eye-opening victory:
1.R.J. Barrett asserts himself as Duke's best player with an electrifying debut
If you go by social media following or number of mentions by ESPN, Williamson is the top member of Duke’s historic freshman class. But Barrett was the top-ranked recruit in the country, narrowly edging out two of his teammates, for a reason. On the opening night of the 2018-19 season, he was the best player in a game stacked with future NBA talent. Kentucky simply didn’t have an answer for Barrett, who scored 20 points in the first half on his way to 33 on the night. Barrett inspired James Harden comparisons with his ability to get to the basket, shoot from outside and set up his teammates in transition. The fact that Barrett is left-handed makes that comparison easy, but it’s also well-deserved. Like the reigning NBA MVP, Barrett has an uncanny ability to change speeds, use long strides to get to the basket and finish through contact once he gets there.
Barrett had several sequences that may have caused the many NBA scouts in attendance to drool in delight. Halfway through the opening period, John Calipari elected to try a 2-3 zone with his team already trailing 29-11. Barrett calmly drilled one of his three threes from the top of the key, then slashed through the zone for a scoop layup on the following possession. Later in the half, he reversed the order, scoring on a driving layup and drilling a three in back-to-back trips.
2. Williamson and Reddish (and others) lived up to the billing too, and everyone on Duke’s schedule should be terrified
I don’t want to overreact to one game—just kidding, of course I do. Here goes: This looks like the best Duke team ever. Barrett, Williamson and Reddish might be the three best players in the country. And if this team stays healthy, it could be better than the 2014-15 Kentucky team that started 38-0. Like I said, those are overreactions. It’s one game, and it’s unclear how much Kentucky’s underperformance contributed to the lopsided scoreline (more on that shortly). This team isn’t going to go undefeated; this year’s ACC is much better than the SEC that Kentucky team played in, with Virginia, North Carolina and Syracuse all likely to offer more defensive resistance than the Wildcats did Tuesday night.
Even though this was just one game, it’s hard to imagine a more impressive, awe-inducing performance from a team on the first day of the season. Williamson was everything he was expected to be, an unstoppable force driving to the basket who also deserves credit for being extremely skilled with the basketball. He bulldozed his way to 28 points and added 7 rebounds, several of which were the result of Williamson propelling his 285-pound body several feet into the air and forcefully corralling the ball. His first basket of the day was a three-pointer on which his left-handed shooting stroke looked smooth. It was the only three Williamson took all night, as he quickly realized he could get easier shots at the rim whenever he desired. Williamson even brought out a few of the powerful dunks he became famous for as a high school sensation in South Carolina.
The fact that Reddish is this team’s third option is preposterous. The lanky, dynamic wing chipped in 22 points, hitting three threes of his own and playing excellent defense, including four steals. One of the more demoralizing plays of the game came when Reddish stole a lazy inbounds pass and slammed it home early in the second half. And it wasn’t just those three. Jones played his point guard role effectively, sophomore Jack White led the team with 11 rebounds, and big man Marques Bolden scored a few of the easy looks he’s sure to get all year long. Alex O’Connell hit three threes from the exact same corner in the second half. Duke hit 100 points with seven and a half minutes to play. It was an utterly incredible display.
3. Things will get easier for Kentucky, but it has a long way to go
Kentucky suffered the worst loss of the John Calipari era to open its 2018-19 campaign. Given the way Duke played on Tuesday, it’s tough to be too embarrassed by the result. Still, Calipari has a ton to work on with his team after the Wildcats offered virtually no resistance from tip-off to the final whistle. While Duke got easy bucket after easy bucket in transition, Kentucky spent the vast majority of the night running discombobulated half-court offense with not enough ball movement and not enough shooting. Only two players provided anything of note on that end: Reid Travis, who scored 22 points despite being barely involved in the offense early on, and Keldon Johnson, the stud freshman who had 23 points of his own. Kentucky shot 4-for-17 from deep, turned the ball over 15 times, and simply looked like it didn’t belong on the same floor as Duke. Calipari has no shortage of questions to answer going forward, but these Wildcats have the talent to improve dramatically and be in the thick of things come March. At the moment, though, they’ll just be thankful to suit up in their next game against a team that isn’t the juggernaut Duke appears to be.