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STUDENT ATHLETES

Why Duke vs. Kentucky Was College Basketball’s Perfect Tip-off

The Blue Devils and Wildcats played a competitive Champions Classic game Tuesday that sharply previewed what’s to come — both on and off the court — in 2021-22.

On a college basketball opening night in which over 300 Division I men’s teams took the court, one game was always going to stand above the others — and it lived up to the billing.

Duke beat Kentucky 79-71 in the State Farm Champions Classic in a battle of bluebloods in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden.

It would be foolish to draw too many conclusions from one game out of what will be close to 40 for each team, but after an offseason solely made of speculation, there are a few takeaways we can

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Trevor Keels: Remember the Name

It’s easy to forget now, but before the 2018 Champions Classic, Zion Williamson was not the consensus top recruit on Duke’s roster. He then scored 28 points on 10-12 shooting in a 34-point beatdown of Kentucky, officially launching Zion-mania.

Trevor Keels isn’t quite at that level, but he had as good a debut in a Duke jersey as you could ask.

The 6-foot-4 combo guard was ranked 23rd in his class according to 247Sports, but was the revelation of the night in New York. Duke maintained a lead on Kentucky much of the way despite phenom Paolo Banchero cramping up and leaving the game for a stretch. As the player himself puts it, he went into “Keel Mode,” scoring 25 points, including 16 in the second half.

“I knew when [Banchero] went out somebody had to step up and that’s what I did,” he said. “We just told our team, we got to put them away right here, stepping on their necks.”

Now imagine what Zion could have brought in had he played in Durham during the name, image, and likeness era. Keels hasn’t raked in the endorsements yet quite like Banchero has, but expect his trendline to start moving upward fast.

Paolo Banchero Looked Like a Top-3 Pick

There’s a reason Banchero has signed with CAA and already has deals with Panini and 2K Sports: He’s a safe bet. Few college athletes have his combination of size (he’s 6-foot-10, 250 pounds), physicality, touch, and basketball maturity.

The ones that do often go on to have successful NBA careers.

Banchero is one of those guys who, even if you have no idea what he looks like, your eyes will be trained on him immediately when you turn on a Duke game.

He just looks like the best player on the floor and when he’s on the floor, he backs it up. Banchero lit up MSG in front of a handful of Knicks players and made it clear that he could compete in the NBA right now. His 22 points and 140 offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) is good enough without taking into account the time he spent cramping and hooked to an IV.

“I think a big thing for Paolo is how strong and comfortable he is with the ball,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “To have his size… it’s just unique in that way.”

Big Blue Nation, TyTy Washington, & the NIL Goldmine

Even in a poor game for Kentucky’s TyTy Washington (nine points, 3-15 shooting) it was clear why everyone from Gatorade to a local Porsche dealership are eager to latch onto him. He’s an electric guard who plays for the team with the most rabid following in the game.

That Big Blue Nation travels well is nothing new. They regularly sell out the 20,000-plus-seat Rupp Arena and make neutral site games feel like they’re being played in Lexington. We saw a demonstration of this on Tuesday when the Wildcats made a late second-half push to cut their deficit to four, making the Garden rock to chants of “Go Big Blue.”

It’s no wonder John Calipari said over the summer that no one should benefit from NIL more than Kentucky players.

As for Washington, his rough start is nothing to panic about. Calipari said he is trying to push his freshman to shoot more, but being asked to do so against a defense stacked with NBA-ready talent is a tough ask.

ESPN analyst LaPhonso Ellis, who spoke to the media pregame, expects Washington to make a name for himself this year.

“He’s different,” Ellis said. “He’s got a poise about him beyond his years. He has a low release point on [his shot]. He shoots the basketball lot better than I thought he did and he has an awareness out there on the floor.”

Oscar Tshiebwe Will Prove to be an NBA Talent

On a rough night for Kentucky, Tshiebwe was a definitive bright spot. He had 17 points and 19 rebounds in 22 minutes and looked every bit the part of a dominating big man. Tschiebwe flirted with the NBA Draft last year before opting to transfer to Kentucky instead, and the bright lights of the season opener surely put shot him up some draft boards.

He’s still in college as a junior after an uneven and incomplete sophomore season at West Virginia where he did not establish himself as a great athlete or playmaker. He negated that first concern by dominating against a Duke team stacked with pros. As for the second, it’s something Calipari says is coming.

“He had three jumpers he didn’t take that I was telling him, ‘Shoot the ball,'” Calipari said. “He’s a really good shooter. But we got to still figure out how we get the ball to him closer to the basket. But he also can really shoot.”

The Coach K Retirement Tour is Already Serious

The Duke haters will groan at this, but it’s true. It took less than a half of the first game of the doubleheader β€” which the Blue Devils weren’t even playing in β€” to confirm it.

While the first half wound down in the Michigan State vs. Kansas game, a PA announcement revealed there would be a special presentation at halftime. It wasn’t tough for the sellout crowd to guess what was coming. ESPN presented Coach K with a retirement award and honored him at mid-court before his final game at MSG. Then, a Zoom video played on the video scoreboard where the event’s other three coaches β€” Calipari, Tom Izzo, and Bill Self β€” talked about Coach K’s impact on the game, reminisced about facing him, and revealed they sent him a special bottle of Pappy Van Winkle to honor the occasion.

So Coach K walked away from the Garden on Tuesday with a win, outrageously expensive bourbon, and a plaque. Buckle up, there’s at least 30 more games of this coming.

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