Photo: R.J. Barrett (L) and Zion Williamson
My guys at Ferris State, who earned an exhibition game invitation from Duke as the defending NCAA Division II basketball champion, should feel more confident in themselves after watching Duke dismantle Kentucky on television.
The numerical comparisons of Duke routing Ferris on Oct. 27 in an exhibition game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and Kentucky in the Champions Classic on Tuesday in Indianapolis aren’t the point. The Wildcats were dominated and humbled more in a 34-point loss (118-86) than Ferris was by 84 (132-48).
Here’s why the blue-blooded Wildcats’ blue-chip recruits were embarrassed more than Ferris’ blue-collar kids:
--- Kentucky was ranked higher than Duke in the preseason, No. 2 vs. No. 4.
--- Kentucky had just as many 5-star (four) and 4-star (one) freshmen recruits in its Class of 2018.
--- Kentucky included a bonus one-and-done -- 22-year-old Reid Travis. The graduate transfer was a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 pick at Stanford. He had played against Arizona’s 7-foot-1 Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick of the 2018 NBA draft.
--- And finally there is the inherent talent differential between a roster of Division I recruits at an NBA combine school and those on a Division II roster. That would take some analytics to determine, but I believe the answer favors Ferris.
In both jaw-dropping displays, Duke performed with pure talent, team chemistry, sharing the ball, basketball IQ and veteran maturity. One-and-done teams have a hard time checking all those boxes. Some stop at pure talent.
“They’re a fantastic group to coach,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “They come every day. They really like each other. They laugh at my jokes, whether they’re funny or not. They make me feel good.”
Throughout the season, teams can feel better about a Duke loss than Kentucky.
After watching the Ferris exhibition, the only question left to wonder was whether the Blue Devils could match their play that night against Division I talent. Well, that question was emphatically and affirmatively answered against Kentucky.
The spread-out team statistics say more than the individual numbers from three players projected as possibly the first three picks in the 2019 NBA draft.
R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-7, 202-pounder, scored 33 points with four rebounds and six assists; Zion Williamson, a freakish 6-7, 285-pounder with twinkle toes, totaled 28 points and seven rebounds; and Cam Reddish, 6-8, 218, had 22 points, four steals and three assists.
Duke shared the ball for 22 assists on 54 baskets. The Blue Devils’ 19 layups and eight dunks showed their quickness and athleticism to get to the basket. They hit 12-of-26 (46.2 percent) 3-point field goals
They only turned the ball over four times. They go to floor – prompting standing-ovations from the bench – to force turnovers (15) and steals (10).
They hit 46.2-percent of their 3-point field goals (12-of-26), 54.4 from the field (43-79) and 69.0 from the free-throw line (20-29).
Duke only blocked three shots if you’re looking for a weakness, but one was actually a catch in the air by Williamson. He proceeded to dribble up court and deliver a pinpoint bounce pass for a Duke lay-up. Legend has it “catching” blocks was nothing new if you’ve seen him play in high school.
That was one play of many that demonstrated Duke’s versatility. Duke’s fourth-and-done is a prototype point guard, Tre Jones. His six points, including the first basket of the game on a three-pointer to jump-start the blowout, with seven assists and zero turnovers only scratches the surface of his importance.
But when he does leave the floor for a rest or a game with foul trouble, Duke can play Barrett, Reddish or Williamson at point guard.
“Zion, when he was little, and I know it’s hard to believe he was little, he was a point guard,” Krzyzewski said after the Ferris exhibition.
The foursome, along with a healthy Marques Bolden, is allowing Coach K to play position-less basketball. He calls it 5-out.
Bolden is 6-11, but he has shown he can hit 3s. He didn’t take one against Kentucky, but he was 1-2 against Ferris.
“He’s actually a very good shooter,” Coach K said, “so if they some ball screens, he can vary the roll or the pop (off the screen to shoot).
Duke chasing perfection might be the only question left. Can the Blue Devils become the first undefeated NCAA champion since Indiana in 1976?
Of the schools that have chased that placed in history and come the closest, UNLV losing to Duke in 1991 Final Four championship and Kentucky to Wisconsin in 2015 Final Four semifinal had talent, but they didn’t measure up the versatility of Duke’s 2018-19 roster.
Maybe North Carolina, with its one-and-done talent and history, can knock off the Blue Devils in their home-and-home games. Conference rivalries are different than other matchups.
During the Ferris exhibition, Bulldogs coach Andy Bronkema wondered if his Bulldogs might lose by 100 points. Watching Kentucky coach John Calipari’s look of bewilderment in Indianapolis, he had to be wondering if his Wildcats might lose by 50.
Up next for Duke is Army on Sunday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Maybe Capt (Ret.) Mike Krzyzewski will show mercy on his alma mater.
It might be the only way to slow down Duke.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."