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Why College Basketball Needs Duke's Dominance

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 6 days ago The SI Staff
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By Dan Greene

There is no optimal day for the college basketball season to open. On the sports calendar it must be wedged between the World Series and the launch of the NBA season, which dominate late October, and Thanksgiving, which begins a stretch of holidays and final exams that consumes campus life. (And if it started later, it would be also more cumbersome to fit in full schedules before March’s postseason.)

And of course, football owns much of the public’s attention on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Thursday throughout fall and winter. On Friday, there isn’t much attention to be had by anyone; ESPN, college hoops' primary avenue to a national audience, builds its Wednesday nights around the NBA. That leaves Tuesday as perhaps the best day of the week for the season to tip off, and this year the sport’s governing powers earned plaudits by shifting the schedule so that the season began on the first Tuesday in November, with the high-wattage matchups in the annual Champions Classic. Which, of course, turned out to be the same day as the midterm elections that seemed to devour American popular culture itself.

All of which is why the blowout in the late game of Tuesday’s marquee doubleheader might have been the best season-opener that the sport could have had. What had been the night’s most anticipated game—No. 4 Duke, with the most celebrated group of freshmen Coach K had ever landed, facing No. 2 Kentucky in Indianapolis — played out as a romp that even the craziest in Cameron couldn’t have seriously seen coming. The Blue Devils scored 118 points and won by 34 in a game that got out of hand early, as they took a double-digit lead in the first six minutes, then doubled that within another four. Duke’s newcomers were sensational, with the trio of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish combining for 83 points, only one fewer than Kentucky finished with all game.

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There are not a lot of regular-season college basketball games that could make a lasting dent in the public imagination. A Duke superteam of NBA-ticketed freshmen running highly-ranked Kentucky off the court is one of them. And it was the style of it—with an overwhelming transition game and the monstrous Williamson displaying uncanny ability on both ends—as much as the result that could have a lasting impact.

As college basketball has struggled to maintain relevance outside of March in recent years, its most recent crossover stars have been the 2014-15 Kentucky juggernaut that reached the Final Four undefeated and Trae Young, an outstanding NBA-ready freshman who played with a jaw-dropping flourish. If Tuesday is any indication, this Duke team could combine the appeal of both, with the added intrigue of its top three stars perhaps comprising the top three picks in next June’s draft—a prospect that lends itself to marveling as much as it does to debate. When you consider that Duke may be, for better or worse, the program that most reliably draws a reaction from sports fans, the Blue Devils check just about every attention-getting box.

It may not be enough to prevent the next couple months of college basketball, with its sterile neutral-site tournaments and low-stakes matchups, from being largely overshadowed by the forces that typically hog the sports world’s oxygen each winter. And it may still prove something of a blip, a highly-visible aberration read into too deeply on account of its stage and primacy. But if what Duke did on Tuesday is any indication, it will be an enthralling team to watch—perhaps enough so that people actually do.

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Vault Photo of the Week: Coach K Was a Player Too, You Know

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Best of the Rest

Editor's note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week's list is curated by Dan Greene.

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Editor's note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let's chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.

Related slideshow: 10 NCAA basketball players to watch this season (Provided by Larry Brown Sports) 

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