PITTSBURGH — There are plenty of words Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski can use to describe his star-laden roster. Nervous is not one of them.
“My guys are not nervous,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m nervous. But they are not. They love crowds. They love to compete.”
No matter who’s watching. With the coach who helped recruit the current Blue Devils on the other bench and one of the greatest rappers in history sitting courtside, star freshmen Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett did what they’ve done seemingly since the day they stepped on campus last fall: They dominated.
Williamson hit his first 10 shots on his way to 25 points, Barrett scored 26 and the second-ranked Blue Devils had little trouble in a clinical 79-64 victory over Pittsburgh and former Duke assistant Jeff Capel on Tuesday night.
Capel helped bring Barrett and Williamson to Duke before leaving last spring to rebuild the Panthers. While Pitt appears to be on its way back, Capel understands the gap between his club and his alma mater remains massive.
“Zion, I don’t know if I’ve seen anything like it,” Capel said. “I looked up at one point in the first half and he had 17 and my assistants told me he hadn’t missed a shot.”
That’s because he hadn’t. Williamson — hardly rattled by the site of Jay-Z sitting in the front row of the packed Petersen Events Center — went 9 for 9 in the first half and finished 11 of 13 overall while adding seven assists and seven rebounds. Williamson insisted he wasn’t keeping track of his hot start. He didn’t have to. His teammates were doing it for him.
“I said (at halftime), ‘I got like 10 points right now, I’m not really doing nothing,'” Williamson said. “I come in here and they tell me what I got and I was like, ‘Dang.'”
Williamson admitted he noticed Jay-Z — whose representatives reached out to Pitt a few weeks ago about stopping by — and pointed out the rapper’s song “A Dream” is on his pregame playlist.
“That was like a dream come true,” Williamson said. “To me, he’s the GOAT” — greatest of all time.
Once the ball was tipped, Williamson and the Blue Devils hardly looked star-struck even without guard Tre Jones, who remains out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. The Blue Devils (16-2, 5-1 ACC) withstood an early surge by the Panthers and then hit the gas about midway through the first half, turning a brief 16-15 deficit into a 44-25 lead at the break.
“That’s to be expected at all away games, people are just going to bring the energy,” Williamson said. “Just got to be mature and take their best shot. I think once we did that, we were able to control the game.”
Trey McGowens led Pitt with 14 points, and Jared Wilson-Frame and Terrell Brown added 12 each. But the Panthers (12-7, 2-4) simply couldn’t match Duke’s size or firepower and never got closer than 15 over the final 22 minutes.
Capel said it felt “surreal” to be in the same building with the Blue Devils but not sitting on the bench next to Krzyzewski. Capel spent seven years as Krzyzewski’s top assistant before joining the Panthers last April, helping Duke become a prime landing spot for the top high school talent in the country.
Capel hopes to one day bring in that kind of talent to Pitt. He might, but not quite yet. The gulf between the two programs was evident once the early adrenaline wore off and Williamson went to work.
Pitt managed just nine points over the final 13:23 of the first half. McGowens and freshman guard Xavier Johnson were unable to find any creases in Duke’s zone to get to the basket — a staple of their attack during early conference wins over Louisville and Florida State. Johnson finished with a season-low eight points and didn’t even get to the line, while McGowens took just one free throw.
“Look, they’re better than us,” Capel said. “They’re more talented than us. I think that’s what it was. I don’t think it was just the zone. I think it was their talent.”
ZION EQUALS KD?
Capel said the last time he watched an opposing freshman score as easily as Williamson came a decade ago when he was coaching Oklahoma against Texas. The Longhorns had a freshman in early 2007 named Kevin Durant. Capel remembers looking up and seeing Durant with 20 points halfway through the first half.
“I said (that night), ‘There’s nothing we can do about this,'” Capel said. “It’s kind of the same with Zion. He’s very unique. He’s very, very unique.”
Duke: The Blue Devils can guard when they want to even without Jones. The team that leads the nation in blocked shots swatted seven — right around Duke’s season average — and found an extra gear when it was required.
Pittsburgh: Capel believes the Panthers are on a path that will return them to prominence. A talent upgrade is a must. For all the fight Pitt showed, the Panthers aren’t big enough or deep enough to hang with the ACC’s top tier.