The Duke Blue Devils picked up a commanding win that will resonate for the entire season on opening night.
No. 4 Duke defeated the No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats 118-84 on Tuesday at the Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. It was a marquee showdown between two of the bluest of blue-blood programs, and Mike Krzyzewski's squad can point to the head-to-head win on Selection Sunday in what could be a battle for a No. 1 seed.
RJ Barrett (33 points, six assists and four rebounds) and Zion Williamson (28 points and seven rebounds) spearheaded Duke's effort, while Reid Travis (22 points and seven rebounds) and Keldon Johnson (23 points) countered for Kentucky.
Duke's Chances at All-Time Great Team Hinges on Lethal Transition Attack
Duke point guard Tre Jones didn't hold anything back when speaking to David Gardner of B/R Mag.
"Personally, I do think we're the best recruiting class ever," he said. "But that's in the past now. Our goal is to be the best team ever. Not the best Duke team ever, but the best college basketball team period."
The path to the best team ever started on the recruiting trail when Coach K landed 247Sports' No. 1 class that includes 6'7" Barrett, 6'6" Williamson and 6'7" Cam Reddish (22 points and four steals) alongside Jones as the floor general and younger brother of former Duke standout and current Minnesota Timberwolves player Tyus Jones.
Those wings give the Blue Devils athleticism all over the floor, and Krzyzewski has the ability to unleash Golden State Warriors-like small-ball lineups with positionless players constantly in motion and attacking transition opportunities. Kentucky couldn't keep up from the start and allowed a head-turning 59 points in the first half alone.
Barrett and Williamson are the headliners as top-notch NBA prospects, and they didn't disappoint by attacking the rim, extending their game beyond the arc and blowing past defenders when they pressed up on the outside shots.
They shined the brightest in transition with Jones, who glided past defenders in the open floor, threaded passes through tight windows like a quarterback and unleashed deadly lobs when one of the wings approached the rim. Duke looked like the Harlem Globetrotters running circles around Kentucky in transition, and the Wildcats are Final Four contenders.
Duke will surely trip up at some point in a loaded ACC featuring Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Florida State and Clemson, but it is stunning to see this team operating at such an efficient level on Nov. 6.
No team in the country can match the Blue Devils' athleticism, and it's downright scary to think about where they could be come March.
If Duke emphasizes the transition attack all season, Jones' bold goals are not that far-fetched.
RJ Barrett Most Advanced Freshman We've Seen Since AD
Anthony Davis remains the gold standard for college basketball freshmen after he led the Wildcats to the 2011-12 national title and became the No. 1 pick and arguably the best big man in the NBA.
Barrett is already the most advanced freshman college basketball fans have seen since Davis.
There have been impressive freshmen such as Trae Young and Ben Simmons in recent years, but they each came with flaws. Young forced the issue at times as a ball-dominant guard who averaged 5.2 turnovers per game, while Simmons was unable to use his incredible talent to will LSU to enough victories to even make the NCAA tournament.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman listed Barrett as the top player on his preseason big board and with good reason.
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Duke scored 59 points in the 1st half en route to a 17-point halftime lead over Kentucky. They didn’t score 59 points in a half against a major conference team all of last season. The Blue Devils were led by RJ Barrett, who scored 20 pts in the 1st half of his NCAA career. https://t.co/IfEzWFJGWI
The freshman is versatile enough to play the 2 or 3, has NBA size and athleticism, can shoot the three, slash the lane and battle for rebounds. He already looks as polished as a senior a mere one game into his collegiate career and is a natural fit with the talent around him.
ESPN's broadcast discussed his instincts and ability to read defenses and make the right play as either a scorer or passer. He didn't hesitate to get his teammates involved when defenders collapsed on him, but he also possesses the strength to finish through contact and convert and-1 opportunities.
There is little Barrett cannot do on the basketball court, and he figures to only get better with more experience.
The ACC is officially on notice.
Wildcats Won't Reach Full Potential Without Emergence of Third Scorer
This was supposed to be a clash of talent at every position, considering the Wildcats countered Duke's group with 247Sports' second-rated recruiting class and some experience.
Instead, Travis and Johnson were the only ones who didn't appear overwhelmed by the Blue Devils throughout the game. Johnson consistently attacked the lane from the perimeter and anchored Kentucky's offense even as it fell behind, while Travis battled on the inside and earned 13 free throws by fighting through contact.
The Wildcats have enough pieces to win the SEC, but every year is Final Four or bust for them. They are going to need to compete with the likes of Duke and others to accomplish that goal, and the only way to do that is with contributions across the board.
Kentucky trailed 97-70 at the under-eight-minute timeout, and Travis and Johnson were the only players in double figures. That's not going to cut it against the NBA-caliber talent Duke brings to the table, especially if they meet again in March.
Travis is a Stanford transfer with plenty of experience under his belt. He wasn't intimidated by the stage and will be a focal point of the offense throughout the season as a double-double threat. However, the onus will fall on players such as freshmen Tyler Herro and EJ Montgomery, as well as returnees like PJ Washington, to provide enough help.
If they don't, the Wildcats will watch the Final Four at home.
Both teams have smoother sailing in the immediate future, with the Wildcats facing Southern Illinois on Friday and the Blue Devils playing Army on Sunday.