Don’t tell Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Self, but Wednesday night’s outing between the Duke Blue Devils and Kansas Jayhawks wasn’t really supposed to be that serious. A ragtag Maui Invitational tournament that Duke had been 14-0 in leading up to their latest 68-61 victory -- but hardly guaranteed anything in the way of championship success -- really shouldn’t have evoked such enthusiasm and emotion from the two sides involved.
Yet it did.
The dark side of being two elite college basketball programs, as Duke and Kansas are, is that the burden of expectations is always on you. With that magical spotlight that ultimately lures in the most highly-touted of recruits and offers that extra shred of legitimacy when rankings are assigned for the tournament, comes the anchor that is heavy public scrutiny at all times.
And that’s why Krzyzewski and Self refused to take their respective feet off the gas on Wednesday night at Lahaina Civic and Recreation Center.
Taking a step back and looking at the game with fresh eyes, it’s clear that the outing gave some real insight into both teams’ strengths and weaknesses. Duke, specifically, showcased just how potent they can be when it matters most, throwing down the last eight points of the game en route to eventual victory. That depth which everyone noted would make the Blue Devils an absolute pain to deal with all year long reared its head against the Jayhawks, particularly when Austin Rivers went into “Bad Kobe” mode and did his best to shoot his team out of the game.
Rivers’ erratic and mildly selfish behavior, by the way, was in itself an excellent reminder of why he’ll be far more at home in the professional ranks than he is in the more controlled, ridiculously meticulously-managed style that Krzyzewski has made his calling card. In the college game going one-on-two and lobbing up a bad shot is grounds for a benching, in the NBA it's grounds for a lucrative extension from James Dolan.
But big picture, Duke being able to go with Tyler Thornton to close out the game proved to be the difference-maker. Although he wasn’t the household name that Rivers is slowly becoming, Thornton had some swagger of his own as he nailed two clutch three-pointers in the last minute and a half to put Kansas away for good.
And just as having the right amount of guard depth saved the Blue Devils, not having enough of it proved to be the Jayhawks’ Achilles heel. Following a strong first half, senior speedster Tyshawn Taylor essentially cost his team the game with countless turnovers and untimely plays, highlighted by a particularly egregious 11th total turnover with last than a minute remaining.
Unlike Krzyzewski, Self didn’t have a suitable back-up to insert in for his out-of-rhythm guard, and that -- among other things -- cost his team the game.
Plus, there are a lot of smaller storylines that were touched on Wednesday but won’t be fully expounded until the season moves further.
Can Ryan Kelly, the MVP of the tournament, continue to -- along with Mason Plumlee -- give the Blue Devils some inside depth? Will Rivers keep falling into gunning traps like the one Taylor set for him? Will Thornton prove to be a reliable fallback option like he was on Wednesday night?
For Kansas, the questions mostly center around their depth, Thomas Robinson’s consistency, and the reliability of Jeff Withey. Self didn’t get to the point of having won over 80 percent of his games by not being able to adjust on the fly – so bet the house on this Jayhawks bunch developing and evolving as the year progresses.
At this point, fans can rest easy knowing that they got an appetizer to what will undoubtedly be a special season for all involved. The 2011 campaign will be one full of twists and turns, and if the largely meaningless glorified scrimmage that is the Maui tournament was this exciting, can you imagine what’s to come when the real games start?