UK Men's Basketball

Duke recruits say they could be a ‘nightmare’ for opponents. UK will get their first shot.

Duke commitments, from left, Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson at the McDonald’s All-American banquet last week.
Duke commitments, from left, Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson at the McDonald’s All-American banquet last week.

The national championship game tips Monday night in San Antonio, featuring two rosters — Villanova and Michigan — that include zero one-and-done players and no recruit that was ranked higher than 20th in his class.

When the next season of college basketball tips off a little more than seven months from now, the marquee game of opening night will feature two rosters — Kentucky and Duke — that will likely include several one-and-done players and be played almost entirely by former five-star recruits.

In that one — and in a switch from recent early season games between top-ranked teams — UK might actually have the experience advantage.

The Wildcats are waiting on several stay-or-go decisions, but the expectation is that a few key players from this season’s team will return for their sophomore and junior years.

On that opening night of the 2018-19 season, the focus will primarily be on Duke’s newcomers, not Kentucky’s latest wave of recruits.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils have, on paper, assembled one of the best recruiting class of all time, and they might not be finished yet.

Duke has commitments from the nation’s top three prospects — RJ Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson — the first time that’s happened in the modern era of recruiting rankings. The Blue Devils have also signed the No. 1 point guard in the class, Tre Jones, and are considered favorites for the No. 1 remaining post player in the class, EJ Montgomery, ranked No. 6 nationally by 247Sports.

EJ Montgomery goes up for a dunk in McDonald’s practice last week. Courtesy of McDonald’s

Unlike past Duke teams (and similar to recent UK squads), next season’s Blue Devils won’t have a super-experienced upperclassman on the roster. Grayson Allen has played his last college game. Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier should return to the frontcourt as juniors next season, but neither played more than 13 minutes a game this past season and started just seven games between them.

There’s a chance Duke’s star freshmen from this past season’s team — lottery picks Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter, and projected second-rounders Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. — could all go to the pros this summer.

Freshman guard Alex O’Connell is the only other Duke player who averaged more than 10 minutes per game this season (10.4), though he didn’t play more than 8 minutes in any of the Blue Devils’ four NCAA Tournament games.

The bulk of the focus — and the bulk of the national title expectations — will be on the Duke freshmen next season.

“Honestly, we’re not really worried about that,” Reddish said. “We’re all together, so that’s all we’re worried about is being together. If we stick together, you can’t really get in our circle. So we’ll be fine. We’re not really worried about all the talk.”

All four future Blue Devils palled around together at the McDonald’s All-American Game in Atlanta last week. The formation of this class started several months ago.

Jones, the younger brother of former Duke point guard Tyus Jones, was the first to commit to the Blue Devils’ 2018 class, doing so last August.

After Jones’ commitment — and the commitment of Reddish a couple weeks later — the point guard had an in-home visit with Krzyzewski, who told him who else he’d like to add to the class. The two names were Barrett and Williamson.

“I remembered that,” Jones said.

He started a group text with the other three recruits right after that. They talked regularly — though rarely about recruiting — and built a bond over the next few weeks. Barrett committed in November. Williamson committed in January.

Coach K’s class came together perfectly.

“We were able to build the bond ever since then,” Jones said. “All four of us just want to win, and so we talked about what we’d be able to do next year, and hopefully that will all end in us winning. We want to play together, and we can’t wait to get on campus.”

All four players pushed back against the idea that this arrangement won’t work. That it’ll take too long to come together. That there won’t be enough basketballs to go around.

“Many people will say that’s not going to work … I don’t understand why,” Reddish said. “Obviously, we all can pass. And we’re not selfish. We’re not all just strictly scorers, so there’s no red flags or anything there. We’re going to be perfectly fine, and we’re going to win a lot.”

All four used the same word — “unselfish” — to describe their playing styles.

Jones led the ultra-competitive Nike circuit in assists last summer.

Barrett — a 6-foot-7 wing — is the best prospect in the class and has spent his career so far blending in with other good players during stints with the Canadian national team and his high school squad, national champion Montverde Academy (Fla.)

Reddish — a 6-8 wing — is so versatile that John Calipari played him as a point guard with his USA Basketball U19 team last summer.

Williamson — a 6-6 bull of a forward — is known for his highlight-reel dunks and blocked shots, but he’s often proven himself to be a willing passer, even though he’s played almost exclusively on teams where he’s been far and away the best player.

“I mean, it could be a nightmare for a lot of teams,” Reddish said. “We all can do so many different things at a high level.

“I don’t think it should be too hard,” Barrett added. “Coach K’s the man with the plan. If you can get Team USA to play together, you can definitely get us to play together. We’re just going to play, and whatever Coach K wants, we’ll do.”

What Coach K wants next is Montgomery, who is also considering UK, North Carolina and others and will be making a decision in the next few weeks. The 6-11 post player could fit into Duke’s plans as a versatile ‘5’ — the last piece in an all-freshman starting five that, according to the recruiting rankings, would blow away Michigan’s “Fab Five” of the early 1990s.

“I love EJ’s game,” Williamson said. “He’s very versatile. He’d fit in well. We’re all unselfish, and we all love to win. And I think that end result could lead to, hopefully, contending for a national championship.”

Five months before that national championship game will be a Nov. 6 date with UK in Indianapolis, home of next season’s Champions Classic.

There’s no doubting Duke’s talent. Will they be able to come together and beat the Wildcats on their very first night of real basketball together?

A couple of similarly built UK teams in the recent past have had trouble in comparable spots. This past season’s freshman-heavy group fought gamely, but lost 65-61 to the more experienced Kansas Jayhawks in their first major test of the season. The 2013-14 UK squad — that featured six new McDonald’s All-Americans — got its doors blown off early against an older Michigan State team, and the 40-0 talk surrounding that group of Wildcats was silenced in the third game of the season.

“That’s going to be the first test of how well we can play together in a rivalry-type game,” Williamson said of UK-Duke 2018.

Reddish already knew who his first college opponent would be. He matter-of-factly said he’s more focused on building something on the court before that night comes.

“I’m looking forward to winning and getting to play with my teammates. That’s all I’m really worried about. I’m not worried about Kentucky or any other school. I’m looking forward to getting in the gym, working with the team, and getting to work.”