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Mike Lopresti | | November 7, 2018

Duke's freshmen are that good, and 6 other lessons learned from college basketball's opening night

Which basketball team will win it all?


No other message that came from the Champions Classic Tuesday night could be anywhere near as shocking, or as awe-inspiring, or as hype-confirming, or as thoughts-of-March-provoking as that simple score. 

Duke 118, Kentucky 84. Worst loss of John Calipari’s Wildcat tenure. Felt like Alabama and Arkansas State. In football. 

Would you believe 60 Blue Devil points . . . in the paint? Or 43 field goals, 22 assists . . . and four turnovers? Or the freshman trio of RJ Barrett (33 points), Zion Williamson (28) and Cam Reddish (23) combining for 83 points . . . in other words coming within one point of the entire Kentucky team? 

As reserve Antonio Vrankovic bellowed when the happy Blue Devils went dancing back to their locker room . . . “THAT’S HOW YOU DO IT!” 

Ya think? But this is what the Champions Classic is all about. “I would guess all four teams are questioning, ok, how good are we?” Calipari said the other day. “We’ve barely got in out-of-bounds plays, and all of sudden you’re running up and down on national television.” 

Or being run out of the arena. 

With four top-10 teams in the house, with all those phenoms -- when Duke met Kentucky, 10 players from ESPN’s top-30 for the recruiting class of 2018 were in the same game -- we had to learn something, right? 

Here are seven of them. 

No. 1. Yeah, the Duke freshmen are that good. 

It ain’t going to be much fun trying to stop Mike Krzyzewski’s kids. Barrett, Williamson and Reddish took 53 shots and made 30 of them, or 57 percent. Fellow freshman Tre Jones ran things at point guard and had seven assists and no turnovers. Opening night jitters? What opening night jitters? 

“No matter how talented they are, you don’t know what they’re going to do,” Krzyzewski said.  “They are a very confident group, and they’re very talented. But there’s nothing like doing it in a game on a big stage. So I would hope they get even more confident.” 

That’d be scary. Krzyzewski looks at his offense rolling down the floor and sees a rare collection of weapons. 

“An interesting thing for our team is that we have four guys that can bring the ball up the court on a miss. And they’re all playmakers. These guys can make plays for one another and that’s an unusual mix. And the offense that we’re running allows them to have the freedom to do it. We didn’t call very many plays, we ran motion most of the game.” 

The carnage was so total, Calipari stood in a second half Kentucky huddle and yearned for it to end soon. 

“I looked up with eight minutes to go and I said we’re not calling a timeout, and if you foul, I’m taking you out of the game. Let this thing run.” 

No. 2. Here’s more bad news for the non-Duke world. The Blue Devils are young, but might not play that way.  

Krzyzewski was particularly impressed by the fact his guys (A) answered a mini-Kentucky rally by throwing a few more knockdown punches at the Wildcats. And (B) they never took their foot off the pedal with a big lead. “Those were two maturity things that they showed.” 

RELATED: Duke vs. Kentucky: 4 notable moments from their history

Not even a heavily pro-Kentucky crowd – Indianapolis being highly drivable for Big Blue Nation – could faze them. The Wildcat throng that was thick on the sidewalks of downtown Indianapolis tried to whip up a frenzy in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They even booed the kid in a Duke shirt on dance cam. Didn’t matter. 

“(The upperclassmen) told us every game that we go to, it’s going to be like that,” Barrett said. “We have a big target on us . . . so get used to it.” 

No. 3. It will be absurdly early, but also very easy, to take Tuesday night and extrapolate to what Duke might do in March. Has any team ever gotten a No. 1 seed six days after Halloween? 

“If they play like that, they’re not losing many. If that’s who they are,” Calipari said. 

RELATED: Opening night scores

Which is what should worry the rest of Division I today, from sea to shining sea. Is that who they are? 

No. 4. In one night, Kentucky went from No. 2 in the nation to facing this hard question -- what now? Gee, those preseason games in the Bahamas had been so much fun. 

Calipari was most distressed by the four Duke turnovers, and mentioned that as an area requiring quick attention. 

“Even in the exhibition games we didn’t create turnovers. I said that to the staff, there’s something that we’re missing here,” he said. “Four turnovers? Either they’re the greatest ball handling team in the history of basketball or we’re not creating enough havoc.” 

The Kentucky faithful, easy to panic, were no doubt unsettled by the splattering. “They’ll watch this tape more than I’ll watch this tape,” Calipari said. 

Bottom line?  “The most that you learn from this is they wanted it more than we wanted it. Then you look at it, and instead of coming together, we splintered and then guys tried to do their own thing,” Calipari said.
“I told them we all have got to do some soul searching here, and let’s figure this out. What happens with young guys when they struggle, they get a little rattled, so you’ve got to be careful that you’re teaching . . . This is one that you watch the tape, learn from it, boom, move on.” 

No. 5. Oh, yeah. The No. 1 team in the nation also won, and it seemed clear that the new wave will keep things going in Lawrence, Kan. 

Had the Duke rookies not been all-universe, it would have been easier to notice how freshman Quentin Grimes needed about nine minutes for his coming out party, hitting his first four shots as a Kansas Jayhawk, on his way to 21 points. Or how his roommate Devon Dotson, a blur of a guard, added 16 in the 92-87 win over Michigan State. 

“Now we know what they can do,” coach Bill Self said. They had endured some struggling moments in the exhibition games. But those didn’t count. Grimes buried six of the first seven 3-pointers he took as a collegian. “People had told me in his camp that he likes it when the lights are on,’ Self said. “He’s a gamer.” 

Transfer Dedric Lawson went for 20 points and 14 rebounds, which means the three new faces in the Jayhawk lineup combined for 57 points. 

Kansas certainly looked No. 1, taking a 17-point lead on Michigan State faster than you could say Udoka Azubuike. Speaking of which, he looks like he’ll be a handful to defend, with 17 points.  “He’s our first option,” Self said. “Even though Dedric may lead us in scoring, everybody will tell you we want to play through Dok as much as possible.” 

But a 7-footer should get more than three rebounds. 

No. 6.  The Michigan State Spartans have some things to work on. A big one: Never again get beat to as many loose balls as they did in the first half against Kansas. Even former Michigan State star Steve Smith, visiting the locker room afterward, was not happy. 

“That’s the first thing he says,” Tom Izzo mentioned. “That’s not the Spartan way. That falls on me, nobody else, just me.” 

Michigan State has now lost three in a row in the Champions Classic, the longest streak for any of the four teams in the eight-year history of the event. Izzo doesn’t mind, if his team learns something. “We will be better from playing this game, on this stage, in this tournament,” he said. 

Four teams came here to open the season, one team left looking ready for March. Someone at the press conference asked the Duke players about that, and Krzyzewski quickly interceded. 

“They have no idea. They’re freshmen. How could they know about March?” 

Probably not. But here’s No. 7 of what we learned Tuesday night: 

The Blue Devils certainly had a grasp of November 6.

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