No. 12 Duke scored just 21 points as an entire team in the first half against No. 14 Virginia's vaunted pack-line defense, but freshman phenom Jayson Tatum exploded for 21 second-half points of his own in a 65-55 win for the Blue Devils.
That first half was a physical grind for both teams. Duke scored just two points in the first six minutes and had a symmetric two points in the final six minutes. But the halftime message was clear: Get the ball to the guy who has been sensational in big games all season long.
On three straight possessions early in the second half, Tatum scored on a fast-break layup, a catch-and-shoot triple and a pull-up jumper from two feet inside the arc. It was a one minute, 45-second sequence that must have had Virginia head coach Tony Bennett wondering what in the world can be done to slow this guy down.
Tatum finished the night with a career-high 28 points while shooting 6-of-7 from downtown. The final three of those three-pointers came off the dribble with a hand in his face and the shot clock winding down.
Against what has consistently been one of the stingiest defenses in the nation over the past six seasons, the soon-to-be lottery pick was NBA Jam on fire.
What else is new, though? Save for one lackluster game against Louisville, when Duke's facing one of the better teams in the country, it's a given that Tatum is going to put on a show:
|Jayson Tatum vs. KenPom Top 25 Teams|
|Jan. 10||Florida State||21||4||93|
|Jan. 30||Notre Dame||19||14||105|
|Feb. 9||North Carolina||19||9||116|
In most of those games, Tatum has had some help from Duke's other alpha dogs. Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard combined for 45 in the win over North Carolina, 40 against Louisville, 37 against Notre Dame, 35 against Florida and 32 against Florida State.
"Any given night, we have guys on this team that can explode on offense," Tatum said on ESPN's SportsCenter after the game.
Against Virginia, though, those other two explosive scorers were nowhere to be found. Kennard finished with 16 points, but he got seven of those at the free-throw line in the final 100 seconds. Meanwhile, Allen had one of the worst games of his career, scoring just five points on 10 shots.
Were it not for Tatum, Duke almost certainly would have been held to fewer than 59 points for the first time since scoring 56 at Virginia in February 2011. Instead, because of him, the Blue Devils won their sixth consecutive game and are finally looking like the star-filled team we were promised in the preseason.
Sam Vecenie @Sam_Vecenie
We’re starting to see the natural, confident scoring skill that scouts love from Tatum. Took some time for him to adjust, but he’s there.2/16/2017, 3:56:00 AM
Before we continue with the Tatum praise, let's be sure to note how well Duke's other once-injured freshmen performed against the Cavaliers—as they will also be crucial in Mike Krzyzewski's quest for a sixth national championship.
The box score doesn't do justice to what Harry Giles did in this game. Five points, three rebounds and two steals in 19 minutes of action are nowhere near what anyone was expecting to see from this stud in mid-February.
However, this was the best he has looked in a game all season. He had active hands on defense and was aggressive with his box-outs. Moreover, after Amile Jefferson picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, Giles became a huge part of Duke's offensive rhythm, as ESPN's Doug Collins noted during the broadcast:
"(In high-screen action,) Virginia's guy shows early, and what Duke is doing instead of coming off the dribble, they're slipping the big guy, and now (Virginia's frontcourt defender) can't get back to him. Now the weak-side guy has to come over and it's a chain reaction."
Earlier in the year, Giles seemed to have no clue how to execute or defend a ball screen. He did well in both departments against the Cavaliers and might finally be ready to make the proverbial leap.
Even Marques Bolden played well in his two minutes on the floor. He blocked a layup attempt and did a fine job of sealing off his man on a post-up—though his teammates failed to find him with an entry pass. Bolden could be the couple-of-minutes-per-game physical energy guy off the bench that Marshall Plumlee used to be early in his career.
But Tatum is the freshman who will dictate how far this team goes.
When he's mortal—like he was in too-close-for-comfort wins over Wake Forest, Clemson, Elon and Tennessee State—Duke doesn't even look like it deserves to survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. When he's stroking it like he did against Virginia, though, there's not a player in the country who can guard him.
As great as Allen and Kennard are, they aren't even on the same planet as Tatum when it comes to the ability to create one's own shot. Kennard has some shifty post moves and can make off-balance shots with either hand. Both guards are willing and able to drive to contact and make their living at the free-throw line. But Tatum is so smooth and subtle with his movements that even with a long, elite defender like Marial Shayok or Isaiah Wilkins right in his grill, he can get off any shot he wants.
And while he didn't have any assists against Virginia, he has shown a knack for finding the open man if opposing teams dare think about doubling him and leaving another Blue Devil open. Tatum had five dimes in the win over North Carolina and has at least two assists in 12 of 18 games.
Add in the defensive rebounds (5.8 per game), the better-than-advertised defense (2.8 combined blocks and steals per game) and the outstanding free-throw shooting (86.4 percent), and Tatum is one heck of a total package. I'm no NBA draft expert, but it's flabbergasting that everyone is arguing over whether Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith or Josh Jackson should be the No. 1 overall pick in a few months when Tatum might be the most NBA-ready player since Andrew Wiggins.
March and April come before June, though, and as long as Tatum keeps rising to the occasion in big games, the Blue Devils will be the favorites to cut down the national championship nets in Glendale.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.