To call Friday night’s matchup between Duke and Gonzaga a “game” would be doing a disservice to what really happened in Las Vegas at an hour that no sporting event should ever be starting. Despite my moral qualms with a 10:30 EST tip-off, I stayed up to watch the game that was more than a game — it was a Final Four preview, a showdown between the two best freshmen in the country, a chance for the Zags to establish dominance or for the Blue Devils to make a major statement. It was 40 straight minutes of mad dash offense and physical D, the entertainment of the game never lagging for a moment, despite the Zags dealing with rushed shots that just wouldn’t drop for much of the first half. It was a thriller featuring Seattle-born freshman Paolo Banchero in the starring role.
I took a look at Banchero’s Wikipedia page this morning to try to learn a little bit about the 6-foot-10 Duke forward, and immediately was met with the information that he grew to 3 feet tall when he was only 15 months old. Just a fun fact I thought I’d share with you all. Despite being out for a large chunk of the second half with cramping issues last night (and being done disastrously dirty on an ESPN graphic yesterday), Banchero racked up 21 points and five rebounds — good numbers, but not reflective of just how insanely dominant he looked on the court last night in an 84-81 Duke win. Twenty of those points were in the first half.
He handles the ball and shoots go-ahead threes with the ease of a seasoned point guard, and he’s got the stature often missing in young players of his height that allows him to get physical on both sides of the ball in the paint. The debate over whether he or Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren would be the first pick in the draft last night was all but finalized last night — Holmgren is a great player, but has nowhere near the easy command of the ball that Banchero demonstrated last night. Coach K has put together an all-around strong roster with a solid chance to take him to the top for his farewell season, but Banchero is coming into his own as the most NBA-ready player in the NCAA, with his unique combination of size and athleticism that made the No. 1 team in the country look like light work. Had Banchero not had to leave to get an IV for his quad cramps — which he also struggled with in the season opener against Kentucky — I have to think that this game would not have come down as close as it did.
It was impossible to take your eyes off of him in the first half, as he drained shot after shot from all over the court, one of those halves where it seems like the basketball was magneted to the net when it came out of his hands. It was a work of art, especially when juxtaposed against the Zags’ early struggles, perhaps best represented by pointing out their 17 turnovers. Some sloppy play is to be expected in a game as aggressively fast-paced as last night’s was, but Gonzaga seemed to be getting the brunt of the consequences that accompany that style of play, largely because of Banchero’s unstoppable first half play.
The Coach K Farewell Tour continues in earnest as Duke remains undefeated after the biggest game of the regular season. None of Duke’s scheduled opponents are currently ranked, which, in theory, should make for an easy coast to a No. 1 seed in the tournament, but the beauty of college basketball is that there’s always the chance of yesterday’s Dayton-Kansas buzzer beater situation.