Duke Basketball: How will freshmen respond to nerves, hype, adversity?

Duke basketball (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Hype is fun, but what’s even more fun, albeit tense for Duke basketball fans, is finding out how each season’s hyped new faces — mega-hyped this time around — respond when facing their first true test.

What truly separates the men from the boys is not what happens during a Duke basketball preseason practice. Or during a weightlifting session. Or during a blowout exhibition win. Or during a McDonald’s All-American Game with no real pressure to win.

While those events are a pleasure to watch in anticipation of the regular-season debut of a new group of Blue Devils, they just don’t tell the whole story. The same goes for the episodes from Duke Blue Planet, as well as the all-access Earn Everything series on ESPN+; these videos have certainly provided some quality entertainment for fans while suggesting the camaraderie amongst all the Blue Devils, as well as their collective talents, is just dandy.

Keep in mind, though, that these diaper dandies, four of whom are expected to be starters — power forward Zion Williamson, shooting guard R.J. Barrett, small forward Cam Reddish, and point guard Tre Jones — have not yet faced a test that truly unveils a group’s character and potential level of greatness.

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But that will instantly change the moment the Blue Devils tip off their season on Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. against Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis. Not only will the more-experienced Wildcats — also possibly equally or more talented — offer the toughest competition the first-year Dukies have ever faced as a unit, but the game will occur under a spotlight that could potentially be blindingly bright.

Millions of Americans will be tuned in to ESPN to watch Duke. And they won’t be watching just to catch a glimpse of the freshmen’s individual talents.

This time around, Duke fans — as well as anti-Duke fans — will have a vested interest in who wins the game. Sure, it’s true that supporters of the Blue Devils wanted the team to win all of their three games during the Canada Tour in August and two recent exhibitions, but the outcomes of those contests were never really in doubt — even before they began.

This time around, No. 4 Duke isn’t even the betting favorite to beat its opponent, No. 2 Kentucky.

This time around, the result goes on the team’s permanent record.

Will the freshmen on this team begin the game in a funk as a result of the nerves getting the best of them?

Even if they look sharp in the beginning, this time around, chances are the Blue Devils will be on the receiving end of a punch to the mouth in the form of a Wildcats run at some point during the game.

Will they fail to respond like winners if and when that happens?

Will everything they’ve learned during preseason practices from 39th-year head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff instantly go out the window?

Will any yet-to-be-seen glaring weaknesses of Williamson, Barrett, Reddish, and Jones be exposed?

Will they argue when things don’t go their way and be unable to bounce back?

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I believe the answer to all of the above questions is “Not likely.”

The point is, though, that no matter how much hype surrounds a group of players — even when it is rightfully deserved, as seems to be the case with these high-flying, freakishly talented youngsters — nobody knows what will happen when adversity appears.

After all, I didn’t see anyone predict that the past two Duke squads, also filled with several one-and-done talents, would suffer a combined 17 losses.

That being said, the anticipation of what is about to happen during the Kentucky game is exactly what makes it so much fun to be a Duke fan. The nervous energy before each year’s team faces its first high-ranked opponent is difficult to temper, but that’s what ultimately leads to such intense feelings of joy and excitement for what may come next when a team passes its first real test with flying colors.

On the flip side, just before midnight on Tuesday, will Duke fans be forced to deal with seemingly devastating disappointment as a result of the freshmen failing to perform under the pressure that the game is sure to create? Again, although nobody knows for sure — yet — my bet is that Zion and Co. are likely to answer that question with a resounding “Not likely.”

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But we’re all fixin’ to find out for sure.