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Five Takeaways from Duke’s Canada Exhibitions

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Just like Kentucky did two weeks ago, the Duke Blue Devils spent last week traveling abroad to play in exhibition games that were televised.

Kentucky went south, heading to the Bahamas.

Duke made the trip up north so that Canadian R.J. Barrett would have a chance to play in front of his home crowd.

And while it was a little bit easier to see what Kentucky will have a chance to be this season — we’ll get into why that is later — we did get our first chance to see what Duke could look like.

Here are the four things that we learned:

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R.J. BARRETT IS THE TRUTH, BUT ZION WILLIAMSON SHOULD LIVE UP TO THE HYPE

At this point, everyone should know more or less what R.J. Barrett is.

He was the consensus No. 1 player in the Class of 2018 despite the fact that he reclassified last summer. (He turned 18 this summer, meaning that he is enrolling in college in what would be considered the normal year.) There is a long way to go still, but he is thought to be head and shoulders above the rest of the field when it comes to the race for the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Last summer, he put 38 points, 13 boards and six assists on the USA team at the U-19 World Cup, which became first time since 2011 that USA Basketball was not the reigning champion at any age group in international competition.

Put another way, seeing Barrett steamroll a bunch of Canadian college basketball players should not be surprising if you know what he did against a team that included the likes of Carsen Edwards, Kevin Huerter, P.J. Washington and Romeo Langford, not to mention Barrett’s current Duke teammate, Cam Reddish. In three games, he averaged 30.7 points, 8.0 boards and 5.0 assists.

What was more eye-opening was the way that Zion Williamson played.

Williamson is college basketball’s first superstar of the internet age. His other-worldly athleticism has turned him into a social media machine. He has 1.7 million followers on Instagram. There are YouTube channels that have sprung to life simply because they were able to post his high school dunk. When he was a junior in high school, Drake wore his jersey. Every teenage basketball fan knows who he is.

The question about Williamson has long been whether or not he is more than just an athlete. He never left his local South Carolina high school, which is why those viral videos of him dunking often looked like he was playing against, well, me. He played on the Adidas circuit in high school, which is good but is not at the same level as the EYBL. I’m not sure there is a person on the planet that can match his explosiveness and quickness while checking in at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, as Duke lists him, but the question about his potential as a pro has always been what will happen when he is not longer on another planet athletically.

And at the risk of overreacting to three exhibition games against overmatched competition, I am much more bullish on him as a prospect today than I was a week ago.

There are three reasons for that:

  1. Williamson has a higher basketball IQ and is a better passer than I realized. It’s the little moments that give it away: finding a shooter after an offensive rebound, seeing a backdoor cut even if the pass he threw was not good enough to get the assist, the outlet passes he would throw to streaking guards before he even landed after grabbing a defensive rebound. He reads the game.
  2. He’s underrated as a ball-handler. He’s also hardly a finished product there, but he has good enough handle that he can be a sensation as a grab-and-go big in transition and will be able to beat bigger (well, slower, he’s pretty big) defenders off the bounce. That’s key because his shooting still needs work.
  3. He just plays so damn hard. When someone his size with his leaping ability decides that they want to go and get a rebound, how are you going to stop him? And while things like handle or shooting or defensive positioning can be taught, ‘motor’ cannot.

Williamson probably could stand to lose 20 or 25 pounds*, which will likely also help with him improving on his conditioning; he seemed to tire for stretches in these exhibitions, which is understandable considering the load he and Barrett carried and the fact that, you know, he is 285 pounds. And that jumper needs some consistency.

But those are fairly easy problems to fix, all things considered.

Which is why I think Williamson is going to come much closer to living up to the hype than I did before this trip.

*(The “Zion is fine at 285” crowd annoys me. Yes, he’ll be just fine playing at 285 pounds or whatever he is. But if he’s able to do all of this while carrying baby weight around, imagine what he’ll do once he streamlines his body.)

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DUKE’S DEPTH IS GOING TO BE AN ISSUE

Duke had a bunch of injuries on this trip.

I know.

Cam Reddish didn’t play. Tre Jones didn’t play. Alex O’Connell lasted all of three minutes in the first game before fracturing a bone in his face. That’s three of Duke’s top six players heading into next season.

The problem?

Without those three, Duke was forced to start the likes of Jack White, Antonio Vrankovic and Jordan Goldwire in lineups that included both Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden. I expect White will play a larger role this season because, if nothing else, he’s going to be one of the best shooters on the roster and can play a forward spot. Goldwire is fine as a point guard off the bench, I guess, and Vrankovic is big enough and serviceable enough to play emergency minutes.

Those guys are fine for the end of the bench, but the problem that will arise is that “the end of Duke’s bench” looks like it is going to start with the eighth man.

And that’s assuming that Marques Bolden becomes a trusted part of Coach K’s rotation. In the three exhibitions in Canada, Bolden played a total of just 39 minutes, missing all three of his shot attempts without taking a single free throw while grabbing all of nine rebounds.

My guess?

Duke plays the majority of this season with a six-man rotation, using O’Connell off the bench to spell whoever needs a rest and allowing Williamson to play the five when Javin DeLaurier needs a blow.

Depth is something that I think is overrated in college basketball given how many TV timeouts there are during a game. Villanova has won two of the last three national titles despite using rotations that end at seven guys. Syracuse routinely makes runs in March with teams that have just five or six guys that see minutes. It’s great to have 13 players on scholarship that can contribute, but only five of them can see the floor at a time. When your best players are going to get 30-35 minutes a night, having too many guys that deserve to play can lead to discontentment.

So I’m not sure this is going to cripple Duke’s season.

But in a sport where titles are won in one-game knockout tournaments, a poorly-timed sprained ankle or some simple foul trouble can be a killer.

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THIS TEAM IS GOING TO BE SO MUCH FUN TO WATCH

If there is one thing that we can learn from the way that Duke played in Canada, it’s that this team is likely going to play fast, fast, fast.

I’m not sure there will be any player in the college basketball this year that can grab-and-go the way that Barrett and Williamson can, and that’s before you even factor in that Reddish — a silky 6-foot-8 wing — will be able to do the same thing, and that Tre Jones will actually be the point guard on this roster.

Imagine being an opposing point guard and seeing Barrett or Williamson come at you with a full head of steam in transition. That’s nightmare fuel.

This group is also switchable defensively, and I’ve been told that they have already been tinkering with lineups that allow Williamson to play the five, a la the ‘Death Lineup’ that the Golden State Warriors roll out with Draymond Green playing center.

There is a lot to like about this group, but that leads me to my single-biggest concern about this team …

… DUKE IS GOING TO HAVE TO FIND SHOOTING SOMEWHERE

Part of the reason I think Duke is going to be a transition-heavy team is that they have the players to thrive in that kind of a system.

But I also think that it will partly be by necessity, as Duke has a roster that is loaded with perimeter talent without having all that much perimeter shooting.

Put another way, Villanova made small-ball work for them last season because every single player in their top six was a lethal three-point shooter. Golden State makes it work because they have three of the greatest shooters in the history of the sport on the roster.

Barrett? The biggest knock on him as a prospect is that he is an inconsistent shooter, and that was backed up by a 6-for-21 (28%) performance in Canada. The same thing can be said about Williamson, who shot 3-for-9 (33%) from three on the trip, and one of his three makes was a ball that bricked off the back of the rim, hit the backboard and happened to drop in. Reddish and Jones are both guys that can make threes, but they are probably better described as scorers more than shooters.

Throw in someone like a DeLaurier or a Bolden, and suddenly the paint gets awfully clogged.

I currently have Duke sitting at No. 4 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 — behind Kansas, Gonzaga and Kentucky — because of those question marks from beyond the arc.

This trip did nothing to alleviate those concerns.

Monday’s Things to Know: Kansas outlasts Iowa State; Michigan State, North Carolina earn big wins

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Monday was a slow night in college basketball. There were three games between ranked teams to keep it interesting though. With major battles in the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12, the night started slow, but closed with a good back-and-forth game.

No. 9 Kansas outlasts No. 24 Iowa State in back-and-forth contest

Following a bad loss to West Virginia over the weekend, Kansas took the floor Monday against an Iowa State team that previously blew them out in Ames.

The Jayhawks avenged that first Iowa State loss with a solid comeback win in Lawrence against the Cyclones on Monday. Playing very much like a Player of the Year candidate, Jayhawk junior forward Dedric Lawson had a monster game with 29 points and 15 rebounds — making critical plays on both ends of the floor. Lawson knocked down a key three-pointer to make it a five-point difference with under a minute left while also making a huge block of a Lindell Wigginton dunk attempt that could have pulled Iowa State to within one.

With all of the Kansas woes late in games, this was a solid win for them after Iowa State mounted a late rally to tie the game.

First-half run propels No. 11 North Carolina past No. 10 Virginia Tech

The Monday ACC undercard to Saturday’s memorable Duke vs. Virginia clash, the Tar Heels used a huge 20-2 run at the end of the first half and eventually run past the Hokies. Getting stops after a hot start for Virginia Tech’s offense, the North Carolina defense looked much improved after some bad stretches at times during the season.

Freshmen also played a giant part in the win for the Tar Heels as Coby White (27 points) and Nassir Little (23 points) combined for 50 points while Luke Maye (14 points) and Garrison Brooks (12 points) had solid games on the interior.

Since North Carolina has to play a difficult remaining ACC schedule that includes two games against Duke and a tilt with Virginia, this is a critical home win for them to get against a team as good as Virginia Tech.

Cassius Winston, No. 6 Michigan State control game against No. 13 Maryland

In the Big Ten, the Spartans maintained control of the league with a solid double-digit win the Terps. Playing without junior guard Joshua Langford, and with big man Nick Ward (0 points) struggling for consistent offense, the Spartans still pretty easily took care of a top-15 thanks to defense, toughness and the steady play at point guard of Cassius Winston.

Soundly outplaying his counterpart in Maryland’s Anthony Cowan Jr., Winston (14 points, seven assists) led a balanced effort for Michigan State as five double-figure scorers led to a solid offensive night. Kenny Goins (14 points, 12 rebounds) finished with a double-double for the Spartans while Xavier Tillman (10 points, five blocks) and Aaron Henry (12 points, six rebounds, four assists) gave great role efforts.

The Spartans remain unbeaten through eight games in a very deep Big Ten as they’re quietly looking like one of the most consistent teams in the country. This team doesn’t have a headline-making star like Miles Bridges, but Michigan State is playing together and playing hard on both ends of the floor.

No. 11 North Carolina beats No. 10 Virginia Tech 103-82

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina went from being unable to hit a 3-pointer to seemingly unable to miss. And its touted freshmen rolled to big nights against a highly ranked Atlantic Coast Conference opponent.

This is more what coach Roy Williams envisioned — or hoped for, anyway — from his 11th-ranked Tar Heels.

Freshman Coby White scored 27 points while UNC hit a season-high 16 3-pointers to beat No. 10 Virginia Tech 103-82 on Monday night, cracking the 100-point mark for the first time in league play.

Fellow rookie Nassir Little added a season-high 23 points for the Tar Heels (15-4, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), who struggled out of the gate to fall behind by nine while making just 1 of their first 12 3s. But it wasn’t long before just about everything started falling from behind the arc, an avalanche that sparked a game-turning 20-0 run that pushed UNC to a 45-31 lead by halftime.

“I’ve seen us play like that but not in enough spurts this year in games,” Williams said.

It was the Tar Heels’ best showing since scoring 103 points in a December home win against No. 4 Gonzaga. There have been clunkers since, though namely suffering the worst home loss in 16 seasons under their Hall of Fame coach against Louisville on Jan. 12.

“I think the key factor for us was we had won two games and then played terribly against Louisville,” Little said. “And we didn’t want that to happen this time. … We just wanted to keep going, keep that energy going, keep that win streak going.”

UNC made 15 of its last 22 3-pointers, shot 54 percent for the game and led by 27 points.

Ahmed Hill scored 20 points for the Hokies (15-3, 4-2), who made 6 of 7 3-pointers in a fast start only to end the half by going nearly 6 minutes without a basket while dealing with foul trouble.

“I thought we tried to manage it the right way,” Hokies coach Buzz Williams said of the 20-0 run. “Obviously we didn’t get any stops. It was kind of a mix-match group that we were trying to survive with, and offensively we were for sure out of sorts.

“It kind of compounded on us fairly quick over those last four minutes.”

BIG PICTURE

Virginia Tech: This was the Hokies’ second road game against a ranked opponent in the past week. Things went poorly in the first at No. 3 Virginia, with the Hokies struggling at both ends in a woeful first half en route to a 22-point loss. Williams sounded happier with his team’s response this time around.

“I think collectively we feel different tonight in the locker room than we did (after the Virginia loss),” he said, adding: “The scores are similar but I think the energy and the effort and the fight tonight was different.”

UNC: The Tar Heels were coming off a win at Miami that pushed them to 3-0 on the road in ACC play, then shook off that slow start by putting five players in double figures — even with season-leading scorer Cameron Johnson managing just eight points.

“It just shows how deep our team is,” White said. “Our depth is crazy.”

WHITE LEADS THE WAY

White finished with seven rebounds, six assists and four steals to go with his game-high 27 points, becoming the first Tar Heel to lead his team in all four categories since Joseph Forte had 24 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and three steals in a February 2001 win at Duke.

FROM DEEEP

UNC’s 16 3-pointers are tied for the No. 2 total in program history, one shy of the program record set in 1995.

FOUL TROUBLE

The fouls added up in the first half for the Hokies. First starting point guard Justin Robinson headed to the bench with his third foul on a charge at the 9:52 mark, then season-leading scorer Nickeil Alexander-Walker picked up his third with 1:26 left in the first half.

INJURY NEWS

Hokies reserve P.J. Horne (4.8 points) didn’t play, with Buzz Williams saying he would be out indefinitely due to an undisclosed injury.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: The Hokies host Syracuse on Saturday night.

UNC: The Tar Heels visit Georgia Tech on Jan. 29.

This story has been corrected to show UNC’s game at Georgia Tech is Jan. 29, not Saturday.

More AP college basketball: http://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 6 Michigan State beats No. 13 Maryland 69-55

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — Aaron Henry made the most of his opportunity to play in place of injured starter Joshua Langford.

The freshman forward had a season-high 12 points, helping No. 6 Michigan State beat No. 13 Maryland 69-55 on Monday night with balanced offense and stifling defense.

“The Henry kid, he’s really good,” Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon said. “Great defender, hard to box out. And, he makes shots. That was a key.”

The Spartans (17-2, 8-0 Big Ten) have won 12 straight this season and are in sole possession of first in the conference. They have won a school-record 20 consecutive Big Ten regular season games dating to last year. The run ties the fifth-longest winning streak in Big Ten history and is conference’s longest since Illinois won 25 straight during the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons.

“I don’t think they give a trophy for it,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Cassius Winston and Kenny Goins each scored 14 points while Matt McQuaid and Xavier Tillman had 10 points apiece for the Spartans.

The Terrapins (16-4, 7-2) had a shot to move into first place in the conference, but couldn’t extend their seven-game winning streak.

“We couldn’t guard them,” Turgeon said. “We went a few possessions with zone, but that’s not who we are.

“We let our offense affect our defense.”

Maryland’s leading scorer, Anthony Cowan, was held to a season-low seven points.

“That was huge,” Henry said. “We looked at him on film and said, `He’s the guy we’ve got to lock down.’ I felt we did that.”

The Terrapins connected on just 34.4 percent of their shots and matched their season low against the Spartans. They shot 58 percent of in their previous game, a 14-point win at Ohio State.

Bruno Fernando had 12 points and 13 rebounds, freshman Aaron Wiggins had a season-high 15 points and Darryl Morsell added 10 points.

The Spartans missed their first six shots then surged to an 18-6 lead while holding Maryland to 3-of-18 shooting.

Maryland started making shots to pull into 20-all tie.

“I thought we could win at that point,” Cowan said. “We just didn’t get enough stops.”

Michigan State closed half with an 11-0 run to lead 31-20.

Winston, who had just five points in the first half, opened the second half with a 3-pointer to put the Spartans ahead by 14. He had a three-point play a couple minutes later, giving Michigan State a 43-26 lead. Goins made a 3-pointer to push the lead to 22 with 15:28 left.

The Terrapins rallied to cut their deficit to 11 with 5:42 remaining, but couldn’t get closer.

“I didn’t think it was the prettiest game, but I was really impressed by our defense,” Izzo said.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: Cowan crumbled against Michigan State’s defense, which included a player guarding him closely while a post player lurked nearby in case he got into the lane. He had scored 20-plus points in four straight games and was averaging 17.9 points entering the game before being held nearly 11 below his average on 3-of-12 shooting. Cowan made a shot early in the game then was held scoreless for 26-plus minutes.

“They really did a good job of closing the gaps,” he said. “And, we just didn’t make plays and that made their defense look a lot better.”

Michigan State: In its only home game during a five-game stretch, the Spartans showed they can win without Langford and basically without struggling starter Nick Ward. Langford missed his sixth straight game with an ankle injury. Ward was held scoreless for the first time in his career, limited to 14 minutes at least in part because he was in foul trouble. Kyle Ahrens, who has started seven games this season, returned from a two-game absence with a back injury and made a reverse layup to help hold off Maryland in the second half.

INJURY REPORT

Izzo said Langford will miss at least one more game.

“He shot some (Sunday) and that was encouraging,” Izzo said. “Now that the boot has been taken off periodically, now that he can work out a little bit, we’re starting to see some progress.

Langford averaged 15 points in 13 games this season, including an 18-point performance in the opening loss to No. 9 Kansas and a career-high 29 points in a win over Texas later in November.

BRIDGES COMES BACK

Charlotte Hornets rookie Miles Bridges , who left Michigan State after his sophomore season, returned to the Breslin Center to kiss the school’s logo on the court before the game. The program’s departing seniors have done that since Shawn Respert did it in 1995. Izzo wants his former players, who enter the NBA draft early, to come back to be a part of the tradition.

UP NEXT

Maryland: Gives up home game to play Illinois at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Michigan State: Plays at No. 19 Iowa on Thursday night and at Purdue on Sunday afternoon.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

AP Poll: Tennessee moves to No. 1 in Top 25, Duke drops to No. 2

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Top-ranked Duke went down early in the week. No. 2 Michigan and No. 4 Virginia, the last of Division I’s unbeaten teams, both fell over the weekend. In all, six top-10 teams lost.

Tennessee kept rolling amid chaos across the AP Top 25.

The Vols are the new No. 1 in The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll on Monday, climbing three spots to earn their first top ranking since the 2007-08 season.

Tennessee received 48 of 64 first-place votes from a media panel in the poll released Monday, well ahead of No. 2 Duke with 11. No. 3 Virginia received three first-place votes and No. 6 Michigan State two. Gonzaga and Michigan rounded out the top five.

“The guys playing right now built this thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.

Expectations followed the Vols into the 2018-19 season. With its top six scorers back from a team that shared the SEC title, Tennessee had its highest preseason ranking at No. 6 and was eyeing a deep NCAA Tournament run in Barnes’ fourth season.

The Vols have lived up to the forecast so far, bouncing back from an overtime loss to then-No. 2 Kansas to win 12 straight games. Tennessee knocked Gonzaga from atop the AP Top 25 with Barnes’ first win over a No. 1 team in early December and won its two games last week, rolling over Arkansas and holding off Alabama .

The only other time Tennessee (16-1, 5-0) was No. 1, it lost the next night to Vanderbilt — the Vols’ opponent on Wednesday.

“Tennessee basketball hasn’t been ranked No. 1 in a long time,” Vols guard Jordan Bone said. “That’s a good feeling, but we can’t be so locked in on that. We have to continue to stay hungry. We can’t be so focused on that. It’s so fleeting. It can change really quick.”

The changes in the AP Top 25 came quickly after a wild week.

Duke started by losing to Syracuse in overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils played without a sick Cam Reddish and lost point guard Tre Jones to a shoulder injury in the first half.

Reddish returned against Virginia on Saturday and Duke responded with a superb game, knocking Virginia from the unbeaten ranks with a 72-70 victory despite playing without Jones.

Michigan lost to Wisconsin by 10, also on Saturday, leaving the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers as the last Division I team to go undefeated.

No. 7 Kansas, No. 8 Texas Tech and No. 9 Virginia Tech also lost. The Jayhawks fell two spots after losing to West Virginia. The Red Raiders dropped six spots to No. 14 after losses to Iowa State and Baylor. The Hokies were down one to No. 10 following a loss to Virginia.

In all, 13 ranked teams lost last week.

HERE IS THE FULL POLL

1. Tennessee (48 first-place votes)
2. Duke (11)
3. Virginia (3)
4. Gonzaga
5. Michigan
6. Michigan State
7. Nevada
8. Kentucky
9. Kansas
10. Virginia Tech
11. North Carolina
12. Marquette
13. Maryland
14. Texas Tech
14. Buffalo
16. Auburn
17. Houston
18. Villanova
19. Iowa
20. Ole Miss
21. N.C. State
22. Mississippi State
23. Louisville
24. Iowa State
25. LSU

KENTUCKY RISING

Kentucky saw a steady slide down the AP Top 25 after opening the season with a blowout loss to Duke. The preseason No. 2, the Wildcats were down to No. 19 just a month ago, but started climbing again.

Kentucky is up to No. 8 after beating No. 14 Auburn and Georgia this week, with games against No. 22 Mississippi State and No. 9 Kansas coming up.

RISING AND FALLING

No. 13 Maryland moved up six spots after beating Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Kentucky, No. 17 Houston and No. 18 Villanova each moved up four spots.

Florida State after stretching its losing streak to three games with losses to Pittsburgh and Boston College, falling out of the poll from No. 11.

MOVING IN

Louisville moved into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season at No. 23 following wins over Boston College and Georgia Tech.

Iowa State’s wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma State put the Cyclones back in at No. 24 after they dropped out from No. 20 last week.

LSU beat then-No. 19 Mississippi and South Carolina last week to return to the poll at No. 25.

MOVING OUT

Oklahoma joined Florida State in dropping out of the poll following losses to Kansas State and Texas. The Sooners were No. 20 last week.

Indiana, No. 25 last week, did not receive a single vote after lopsided losses to Nebraska and Purdue.

Tre Jones ‘doubtful’ for game vs. Pitt

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It does not appear that Duke will be getting their freshman point guard back for Tuesday’s game against Pitt.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters on Monday morning that Tre Jones is “doubtful” to play in the next game for the Blue Devils.

“He’s not going to play unless something miraculous happens,” Krzyzewski said.

Jones injured his shoulder six minutes into Duke’s loss to Syracuse last Monday. He did not return to the floor and Duke later announced that Jones had suffered a sprain of the AC joint in his right shoulder. He did not play in Saturday’s win over No. 4 Virginia, but earlier in the week Coach K told The Athletic that the injury was not expected to keep Jones out for an extended amount of time.