Luke DeCock

After Kentucky display, Duke’s traveling roadshow returns home to a new reality

The building seemed to inhale as Zion Williamson accelerated down the layup line for takeoff. And then, instead of dunking from above the rim, he tried a finger roll that bounced off the base of the rim and out. The disappointment was palpable. People showed up early, and will continue to show up early, to see Duke warm up this year just to see Williamson dunk.

Kind of how it was Sunday, when everyone showed up with a different air of expectation for what you’d usually get at Cameron for an opener against Army after what happened Tuesday and Duke nearly missed the layup, metaphorically speaking. Duke let Army hang around until midway through the second half, on its way to a 94-72 win that was far closer than the Kentucky game ever was. It’s a weird learning experience when you have to discover the hard way that not every opponent will be as much of a pushover as the Wildcats.

“It was definitely a bit of a statement,” Duke forward Javin DeLaurier said. “It was unlike any individual win since I’ve been here.”

What Duke did to Kentucky was almost unprecedented in its scope, leaving a the college-basketball world breathless, beyond even these borders. France was represented by a correspondent from Le Monde to see tout le dunking. That’s how it’s going to be now, even if this Duke team isn’t quite ready to live up to those expectations yet. Even for someone like Williamson, who has been in the spotlight for years, it’s different.

“Yes and no,” Williamson said to a group of a dozen reporters as an ESPN crew elbowed its way into the scrum, dragging a cable behind it plugged straight into SportsCenter. “Yes, because Duke was all over social media after that. No, because this is still Duke.”

But even for Duke...

“It wasn’t just noise,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “It was noise. A different kind of noise.”

Williamson has transcended his YouTube stardom into actual basketball stardom, and despite being a cyborg of an athlete the crazy thing is he might be the third- or even fourth-best player on this team most nights, even if he was by far the best Sunday.

R.J. Barrett may be the best player – not freshman – in the country, Cam Reddish is off to a hot shooting start and Tre Jones is a doppleganger for his older brother, not the only echo of 2015 with this group. The biggest difference might be the absence of a stable veteran like Quinn Cook, although that’s a role DeLaurier may be able to play.

Like that title team, these players recruited each other, arrived with a familiarity their recent predecessors have lacked. Like that title team, this team will have its struggles, no matter if it works out the same way in the end.

“It’s only our second game,” Barrett said. “The freshmen, we don’t know what to expect.”

And yet this is all very predictable, so far. For these one-and-done stars, the Champions Classic – national TV spotlight, NBA arena, Kentucky – might as well be the Final Four. It’s not surprising in the least how well Duke played, even if Kentucky’s lack of interest in playing any defense was. Tuesday night was the best possible scenario for Duke, the stars aligned appropriately for the Blue Devils’ new superstars. And Duke isn’t going to lose to anyone shooting 46 percent from 3-point range, not without divine intervention.

The rough patches will come for this team, and the helter-skelter first half against Army full of bad shots and disorganized defense was a preview: Most likely in Maui, where an erratic shooting night or the slow pace of one opponent will inevitably throw off the Blue Devils’ rhythm, forcing them to rely on a defense that isn’t ready yet.

Duke could then lose two of its first six ACC games, during what might be the toughest part of the season for freshmen, prompting a relentless wave of “What’s wrong with Duke?” exposes, only for the Blue Devils to win 12 or 13 of the final 14 and head into the postseason with relentless momentum.

Tuesday demonstrated that this team does indeed have the raw talent to not just beat but overwhelm anyone else in the country, but Sunday demonstrated even Duke isn’t going to do it every night. The anticipation will still be there, every time. That noise, that “exceptional noise,” as Krzyzewski called it, won’t go away.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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