Each year Duke’s basketball staff works feverishly to help its elite group of freshmen assimilate to the college level as quickly as possible.
Some teams take a while to mesh and play their best. Some teams, like the one that dominated No. 2 Kentucky Tuesday night, don’t need any time at all.
In the season-opener on a neutral court, a No. 4-ranked Duke team with four freshmen playing in their first college game ran beat the Wildcats 118-84 in the Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Blue Devils have perhaps the best recruiting class ever, featuring three of the top five players in the 2018 freshman class. Kentucky has the nation’s No. 2 class plus a few experienced players who were supposed to give the Wildcats the edge against Duke.
Instead, Duke’s freshmen -- Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones -- each scored as Duke made its first four attempts from the field on the way to building a 21-point lead before 10 minutes had been played.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski praised them as “magnificent.”
Star freshmen dotting Duke’s lineup is nothing new. The names of Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter, Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Jabari Parker are prime examples over the past four seasons.
This group, though, appears even more special. Looking at Twitter followings, YouTube video view totals and social media reaction to the wipeout of Kentucky, the country can’t get enough of them.
They’re college basketball’s version of the Beatles and Tuesday night was their Ed Sullivan Show.
“We were amped up,” said Reddish, a 6-8, 218-pound forward who scored 22 points. “We came out from the jump and played as hard as we could.”
The prevailing questions are how did this group come together so quickly? And is there a chance this wave of good feelings will last five months, all the way to April at the Final Four in Minneapolis?
Krzyzewski hasn’t been shy about saying this team has a good bond.
We’ve heard that before about these freshmen-laden teams, only to see them stumble as the season progressed.
Last year’s Blue Devils lost at Boston College in a rare ACC opener the second week of December. Two years ago this month, Duke lost to Kansas in the Champions Classic in New York and, a month later, lost its ACC opener at Virginia Tech.
Both of those teams accomplished more than most programs. But they also each lost nine games.
The Ingram-led Blue Devils in 2015-16 lost to Kentucky at the Champions Classic on the way to an 11-loss season.
But even Krzyzewski admitted how this season’s freshmen handled situations against Kentucky that trip up young teams.
After building that early 21-point lead, Duke never let the Wildcats get closer than 12 points. Even after taking a 17-point halftime lead, Duke scored five points over the first 47 seconds of the second half and Kentucky needed a timeout to regroup, again.
The Blue Devils didn’t let Kentucky believe it had a chance to fight back.
“I shouldn’t say I’m surprised at how well these guys play because I see them,” Krzyzewski said “but to play well on this stage, right away, against Kentucky, was a little bit surprising. They handled two really important situations that even veteran teams don’t do, started a half with a big lead, go and get five points and they call a timeout. And usually after that, teams tend to let up a little bit and we didn’t. So, those were two maturity things that they showed us.”
This year’s players didn’t appear to care who on their team scored. . Williamson, a 6-7, 285-pound forward, Barrett, who’s a 6-7, 202-pound forward, and Reddish could each be an alpha, the guy who needs the ball and is the main focus of the offense.
Instead, all three scored 22 points or more against Kentucky. Krzyzewski said he didn’t even run plays as Duke used its 5-out motion offense to blitz Kentucky’s defenders for easy shots in the lane or wide-open 3-pointers.
The early season spotlight didn’t bother this team as they listened to upperclassmen like junior center Marques Bolden, junior forward Jack White and junior forward Javin DeLaurier -- even though those three had little starting experience in their first two seasons.
“My nerves were pretty calm because in high school you get very excited about it,” Williamson said, “but when you get to college you just learn from the upperclassmen. If you go in too excited, things will not go your way so just go in calm and just play very hard and that’s what we did.”
This team, so far, is fully enjoying the intense spotlight and playing like it feels no pressure.
You see it in the way that Barrett and Williamson happily stopped eating to talk to and take selfies with fans on a recent visit to Waffle House.
You see it when Barrett, Williamson, Reddish and Jones -- the four freshmen starters weren’t comfortable posing for a magazine cover photo unless the fifth freshman, reserve redshirt candidate Joey Baker, was included.
You saw it during Williamson’s post-game interview on ESPN Tuesday night after the defeat over Kentucky.
“All of us have fun. I can’t even explain it,” Williamson said with a chuckle and a shake of his head. “I just love playing basketball. I love playing with my brothers. And playing for Coach K and those coaches, I don’t think there’s anything better than that.”
The tour continues with Duke’s first two home regular-season games -- Sunday against Army at 1 p.m., and Wednesday against Eastern Michigan at 7 p.m. -- before the Blue Devils head to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational.
From there, we’ll see how much further this “magnificent” team can go.