With the end of 2018 quickly approaching, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest sports stories of the year. Each day, The Blue Zone will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year in Blue Devil athletics.
Coming in at No. 2 on our list: Behind the hype of one of the greatest recruiting classes ever, Duke men's basketball makes a statement at the start of the 2018-19 season with a 34-point beatdown of then-No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic.
Boasting the top three recruits in the Class of 2018 as well as the brother of a former national champion, expectations seemed impossibly high for such a young Duke squad.
And yet, standing under the bright lights of Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse in front of millions of viewers nationwide, somehow, the Blue Devils exceeded them all.
Then-No. 4 Duke absolutely crushed the Wildcats 118-84 to kick off the season, shattering the Champions Classic scoring record and handing Kentucky head coach John Calipari his worst loss of his tenure with the Wildcats. What was supposed to be a fast-paced, neck-and-neck contest contrasting Kentucky's experience and depth with Duke's talent quickly turned into a blowout, with the freshman foursome of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones combining to outscore the entire Wildcat squad by five.
From the opening tip-off, Duke's greenhorns took center stage. Jones started the action with a 3-pointer, followed in turn by Reddish. Barrett cut in for a layup and Williamson—normally considered a threat from just the interior—sank a three as well. Although the Blue Devils have shown to be inconsistent from range, that night Duke looked absolutely lethal from beyond the arc. The Blue Devils finished the night shooting 46.2 percent from distance.
"At the start of the game, we hit everything," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterwards. "I want my guys to play loose and play hard, and I thought defensively, we played really well. I think we’re going to get into high-possession games, and if we do, we’ll have a better chance of winning."
Although Duke's defense at times showed the kinks expected in a young squad still working out their team play—Kentucky's 84 points were the second most the Blue Devils have allowed all season, the most being 89 against Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational—Duke's efficiency and effort on both sides of the ball threw the Wildcats completely out of rhythm. The Blue Devils notched 10 steals and forced Kentucky into 15 turnovers, with Jones and Reddish, in particular, hounding the Wildcats' backcourt setup.
Tyler Herro, Kentucky's go-to shooter, was limited to just 1-of-6 shooting from three. Outside of Herro, Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis, none of the Wildcats' vaunted scorers could reliably make a dent. Kentucky looked even more out of sorts on the other side of the ball, notching just one steal and forcing the Blue Devils into only four turnovers.
Outside of Duke's high-caliber freshmen, the key for the Blue Devils' dominance came from junior captain Jack White.
With 11 rebounds—six of which came off the offensive glass—and nine points, White's performance was nothing short of spectacular, especially considering his lack of playing time in previous seasons. Although the Blue Devil junior struggled to sink his threes, his lockdown defense more than made up for any bricked shots. White ended the contest with a plus-minus of 35, the highest on the team, and cemented himself as not only one of Duke's most important players, but also a very possible starter down the road.
“They’re a very confident group, and they’re very talented, but also our upperclassmen have gotten better, so it’s a nice mix,” Krzyzewski said. “What Jack White did today, that’s what he’s been doing in practice and exhibitions, but there’s nothing like doing it in a game on a big stage.”
Duke's breakout win against Kentucky set the stage for big things to come. Although the Blue Devils aren't in the running for an undefeated season—their loss in Maui put an end to that possibility—Duke made it loud and clear: The Blue Devils' young core is primed to make waves come March.
READ MORE on Duke's men's basketball's 2018-19 season so far:
A look at the rest of our top 10 countdown to date:
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