Duke gets Coach K’s farewell tour off to a great start with an impressive opening win vs. Kentucky

NEW YORK — In any other game, in any other year, fans who come to an arena to watch Duke play would not notice Mike Krzyzewski until minutes before the starting grids were announced. That’s common. But in this game, in this year, the winningest coach in Division I history walked into the center of the court 90 minutes earlier than usual, here at Madison Square Garden, so that he could be publicly honored by ESPN at halftime. the Champions Classic opener between Kansas and the state of Michigan.

That was the first sign that this was another deal.

Since announcing his plan to retire at the end of this season, Coach K has actually spent every week explaining how he wouldn’t waste a lot of time focusing on the end of his storied career. And I’m sure that’s his intention. But it’s been clear for months, and it was undeniable on Tuesday night, that Krzyzewski’s so-called “Farewell Tour” will be the dominant storyline of this season, whether he likes it or not. It’s inevitable and in your face – so much so that during the halftime of Duke’s eventual 79-71 season win over Kentucky, MSG’s internal televisions broadcast what amounted to a pre-recorded Zoom call from John Calipari, Tom Izzo and Bill Self casually discuss Krzyzewski’s impact on sport.

It seemed to go on forever.

When it was finally over, Duke took over.

Opening the second half with a 30-19 run, the Blue Devils built a 15-point lead that they never completely relinquished, in part because their most talked-about freshman, Paolo Banchero, looked just like someone akin to the leading candidate to be the first overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound ahead did things that men his size normally don’t do (because they can’t). He took 11 shots, made seven and finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and two steals.

“I think it’s important for Paolo how strong and comfortable he is with the ball,” said Krzyzewski. “To have his mate and… [and skill], it’s just unique. And he has a good head. He has good parents. They raised him hard.”

I wrote a column published Monday night pointing out that there’s nothing crazy about thinking that Krzyzewski’s last game on the sidelines in New Orleans could be in the Final Four, and what happened Tuesday night only reinforced that belief. but. Duke looked bigger, more talented and generally better looking than Kentucky, and this is a Kentucky team that was recently picked to win the SEC. Kentucky isn’t that bad when Duke is just really good, a preseason top-10 that may be underrated. Yes, the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, according to 247Sports, belonged to a different school (Memphis), and the nation’s top-ranked candidate (Chet Holmgren), according to 247Sports, enrolled in a different school (Gonzaga). But Duke was still the only program, according to 247Sports, to enroll three five-star prospects.

That came up against UK.

Five-star freshman AJ Griffin, who was sidelined for part of the preseason with a knee injury, played just 10 minutes. But Duke’s other five-star freshman, Trevor Keels, finished with a game-high 25 points thanks to a 10-for-18 shooting performance in 34 minutes on the field. If Banchero lived up to the hype, it was Keels who exceeded all reasonable expectations.

“Trevor is a great player,” said Krzyzewski. “He weighs 230 pounds and if he were a running back he would know how to pick holes likeā€¦ He doesn’t charge much because he’s so low and has great body control. He’s the best player in the DC area.”

Next up for Duke are six consecutive games that it will use to develop chemistry and make Griffin more comfortable ahead of a showdown with the best Gonzaga scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving. So we shouldn’t see the Blue Devils testing for the next few weeks. But on Tuesday night, here on the opening night of Coach K’s final season, they were tested and they passed.

They weren’t perfect. But they were impressive. And they showed very clearly that they are good enough to compete for what would become the sixth title in their coach’s Hall of Fame career.

“We are a great team,” Banchero said. “We’re going to play together. We’re going to play hard the whole 40 minutes. And yes, I mean, we’re going to play like Duke.”

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