For two weeks, between Duke's season-opening rout of Kentucky and the Blue Devils' march to the Maui Invitational title game, everyone had questions: Could Duke beat the Cleveland Cavaliers? Will the Blue Devils go undefeated? Would they have beaten the Fab Five?
And then, all the hype came to a screeching halt. Gonzaga lifted the trophy at the Lahaina Civic Center and Duke's 40-0 dream—if there ever was one—was finished.
The Blue Devils and their core four of freshman stars would have to respond to a loss for the first time.
Their answer? An ACC/Big Ten Challenge blowout that was never in doubt.
"We were just ready to get back on the court," Zion Williamson said. "We know what we can do. It’s a long season, 40 games, we want to do them all incredible, but we know it’s a hard season. You can’t stay on one game. You’ve got to move on to the next."
Duke had a clear plan from the very first minute. On the offensive end, the Blue Devils were going to put the ball in Williamson's hands and let their star freshman do the rest.
But defensively, it was going to be a team effort—a 1-2-2 press that forced several Indiana turnovers within the game's first few possessions as Duke jumped out to a 22-10 lead less than seven minutes in.
Of course, Tre Jones led the way, setting the tone atop the Blue Devil press. The freshman floor general logged only two steals, yet his intensity in the Hoosier backcourt led to sloppy passes that Duke easily picked off and quickly turned into easy buckets on the other end.
"He’s way ahead," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Jones' effort on defense. "What it does to the other guys, it should make them better at denying passes, so we’re taking advantage of that ball pressure, but it’s a beautiful thing to watch really for a freshman to be able to do that."
"[The press] was part of the gameplan but at the same time, that’s really our game," Jones added. "We pressure the ball a lot and we’ve been doing it all year, so we were trying to do that today and get back to play like ourselves.... We wanted to come out tonight and have a lot of energy right away."
The Blue Devils never had an issue on the offensive end. Despite some stagnant and empty possessions after intermission, Duke's 24-point advantage at the break was more than enough for the hosts to coast to victory.
And as usual, the Blue Devils made it look easy—Williamson added a few more jams to his highlight reel, Duke tossed its obligatory alley-oops and there were handful of wide-open threes to light up the scoreboard.
But none of it would've been possible without the Blue Devils' early fire.
"We know we can score the ball. We showed that again tonight. The next thing that will really separate us is on the defensive end," junior Jack White said. "We have the tools to do it, it’s just going to be getting those reps and getting on the same page."
Duke couldn't have asked for a better answer to its first loss. The Blue Devils never once looked in the rearview mirror, instead allowing themselves focus on things they'll need to improve before ACC play.
Whatever hype train there was roaring toward U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis is no more. Duke's loss to Gonzaga showed there are certainly chinks in the armor—especially with four first-year players, even if they are already national stars.
As for Coach K? He also wanted to make a statement of his own before leaving the podium.
"Duke fans, just cut it out, man. These kids aren’t perfect," Krzyzewski said. "Let’s get real about this whole new thing. Let’s not get spoiled. We’ve got four 19-year-old kids, they're trying to bust their ass to learn how to play and have a lot of pressure on them. Let them grow."
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."