Is one game into the 2018/19 NCAA basketball season to soon to crown the national champion? Yes. Yes, it is. There are early-season tournaments, holiday tournaments, conference play, inter-conference play, conference tournaments and the Big Dance yet to come. For teams who can make a deep run to the Final Four, as many as 40 games remain. The one that matters takes place on Monday, April 8th in Minneapolis, not Tuesday, November 6th in Indianapolis.
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On the other hand, it’s been seven bleak months in which a college player has not contested a shot in anger, rattled a rim, or gotten the Cameron Crazies on their feet. All anyone could do was watch the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup, the Champions League Final and World Cup, pennant races and World Series, all the while counting the days.
So, when #4 Duke and #2 Kentucky got it on to kick off the season, all that pent-up energy had to go somewhere. When it went into a 34-point rout, the ‘4’ in front of Duke flew out the window to be replaced by the ‘1’ on the chest of 2018’s answer to Charles Barkley, freshman forward Zion Williamson.
The 18-year-old from Salisbury, North Carolina rumbled for 28 points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes. Fellow freshman, RJ Barrett, from Mississauga, Ontario, outdid him with 33 points in 32 minutes. Aussie Jack White claimed 11 boards.
Now, the entire college basketball universe is anointing Duke national champions. One game does not a season make, but after such a dominant performance, the title is at least theirs to lose.
It’s difficult to bet against Duke and their coach in that scenario. Not because Mike Krzyzewski and Duke are invincible. No one is. Not now, not ever. Coach K has bounced back from several setbacks in the regular season, the tournament, the Final Four, the national title game and in the off-season. Now, the school is bouncing back from its reputation.
In his 38 years as Duke coach, Krzyzewski built a program that emphasised education as much as athletics. In 1999, the Blue Devils were the last founding ACC team to lose a freshman to the NBA. Its players were famous for staying in school, producing mature professionals like Shane Battier and JJ Redick. Even Duke standouts who failed to make it as NBA stars were prepared for success after school. Danny Ferry went into management. Jay Bilas became both a successful lawyer and television/internet personality.
In the last decade, however, the former Army player and West Point coach grew weary fighting a rearguard action. Even though Jay Wright and Villanova have won national titles twice in the last three years while keeping players in school and producing a 100% graduation rate in their squad, players declare early for the NBA as frequently from Cameron Fieldhouse as they do from Rupp Arena these days. Duke keeps producing dominant freshman classes but can no longer boast senior ones.
Coach K, once thought above reproach, fielded questions last year about an FBI investigation that found irregularities in his freshman class. Rookie Chicago Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr’s eligibility was questioned when it emerged his mother had lunch with an agent [now charged with corruption] when the player was just 16. Krzyzewski shrugged off the questions, suggesting it’s time the NCAA stopped exploiting its athletes, “take a look at amateurism and look at it probably defining it differently.“
It’s a valid point. At the same time, it asks the dubious question, ‘if the NCAA doesn’t care about an athlete’s future, why should I?’
At 71, Krzyzewski has exchanged pragmatism for the ideology the 56-year-old Wright still practices at Villanova. Time is running out on his career. He’s made the Final Four just four times this century, winning three, however, in 2001, 2010 and 2015. That’s why it’s so difficult to rule Duke out. When they make it to the last weekend, they tend to finish on top.
In an effort to add another title to his collection, Krzyzewski’s recruiting the best athletes to fit his system, regardless of their commitment to an education.
Coach K’s new approach is paying early dividends. Before the romp over Kentucky, Duke were 4/1 favourites to win the NCAA Championship outright, EVEN MONEY to make the Final Four. UK was at 6/1 and 5/4 respectively. Villanova was 25/1 to defend its title, although their line moved to 15/1 on 8 November.
As I said, it’s Duke’s title to lose. Mike Krzyzewski is in prime position to add to his legacy. At one time, graduating another senior class would have done that more than climbing a ladder and cutting away a net. Things change. Not always for the better.
Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.