Next things first! Before we discuss the entirely viable national championship aspirations of this current iteration of the Blue Devils, I suppose we’d better have a little chat about Zion Williamson, the latest addition to the blockbuster, net-cutting, rim-rattling recruiting class that will take the floor next year at Cameron. When it was announced last week that the six foot seven Williamson—a Mack truck enforcer with elite scoring skills—was choosing Duke over Clemson and UNC, the earth briefly rocked on its axis. With his NBA-ready physique and highlight-reel athleticism, the Spartanburg native has already drawn not-fully-irrational comparisons to Charles Barkley.
By virtue of the signing, the Blue Devils now possess the consensus top-three recruits in high school basketball and four of the top eight overall. Along with prized incoming freshmen R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish, Duke will enter next season as the sort of prohibitive favorite that John Calipari’s monstrous amalgams of five-star talent have often been during his time at Kentucky. This kind of ostentatious recruiting haul has become more and more common in Durham as Coach K pulls out every stop in an effort to maximize his late-tenure years. But even by the newly accustomed standard, next year’s class has quickly taken on a national-championship-or-bust level of expectation that promises to metastasize into an epochal in-season pressure cooker. I can’t wait.
Next year’s champs (I’m calling it early) may be repeating. The 2018 edition of the Blue Devils looked more and more like a Final Four team in a character-building comeback at Miami, which saw them play poorly early, trail by as many as thirteen in the second half, and still rally to choke out the pesky Hurricanes over the game’s final ten minutes. Struggling on both sides of the ball, Duke switched to a 2–3 zone with twelve minutes left and rode the hot hand of Gary Trent to a 27-4 closeout over the final stretch.
A Saturday home game against Pitt turned into the second humiliation of the Panthers in the last two weeks, with Duke prevailing 81–54 in a matchup that felt out of hand at warmups. Wendell Carter Jr. ran riot, accounting for twenty-one points and eight rebounds, with Marvin Bagley chipping in for twenty and seven. The contest was never close, with Duke giving every indication that they are coalescing into something truly menacing.
More of the same. The No. 4 ranked Blue Devils were expected to have an easy time with a down-on-their-heels Wake Forest team, and they never trailed, winning easily 84–70. Led by Wendell Carter Jr.’s twenty-three points, Duke led by as many as twenty in the second half, and even a lackadaisical stretch and a Demon Deacons run could get them no closer than eight. A routine victory from a gifted team readying for its biggest game of the season on Saturday.
UVA is coming! Tony Bennett’s No. 2 ranked Cavs have perfected a bruisingly efficient style of brutalist slow ball that finds them 351st out of 351 teams in terms of the tempo of play. The Cavaliers will come in 9–0 in the ACC and will prove a fascinating matchup for the uproariously talented but still gelling Blue Devils. Will Duke elect to run and pressure the Cavs out of their comfort zone? Or will they be content to grind it out mano-y-mano in an intense struggle between potential No. 1 seeds? Few have demonstrated luck against Virginia playing the Cavs’ preferred style of basketball, but I wouldn’t put it past Coach K to try.
Later in the week, a home matchup against a struggling Notre Dame contains little of the appeal of the Cavs game, but beware of a letdown. The Irish are still a game 13–7, and the Blue Devils figure to be coming off an emotionally draining contest. Remember what Virginia Tech did to the Tar Heels the other day—it’s the ACC, and anything can happen.