By Dan Greene
There is no optimal day for the college basketball season to open. On the sports calendar it must be wedged between the World Series and the launch of the NBA season, which dominate late October, and Thanksgiving, which begins a stretch of holidays and final exams that consumes campus life. (And if it started later, it would be also more cumbersome to fit in full schedules before March’s postseason.)
And of course, football owns much of the public’s attention on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Thursday throughout fall and winter. On Friday, there isn’t much attention to be had by anyone; ESPN, college hoops’ primary avenue to a national audience, builds its Wednesday nights around the NBA. That leaves Tuesday as perhaps the best day of the week for the season to tip off, and this year the sport’s governing powers earned plaudits by shifting the schedule so that the season began on the first Tuesday in November, with the high-wattage matchups in the annual Champions Classic. Which, of course, turned out to be the same day as the midterm elections that seemed to devour American popular culture itself.
All of which is why the blowout in the late game of Tuesday’s marquee doubleheader might have been the best season-opener that the sport could have had. What had been the night’s most anticipated game—No. 4 Duke, with the most celebrated group of freshmen Coach K had ever landed, facing No. 2 Kentucky in Indianapolis — played out as a romp that even the craziest in Cameron couldn’t have seriously seen coming. The Blue Devils scored 118 points and won by 34 in a game that got out of hand early, as they took a double-digit lead in the first six minutes, then doubled that within another four. Duke’s newcomers were sensational, with the trio of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish combining for 83 points, only one fewer than Kentucky finished with all game.
There are not a lot of regular-season college basketball games that could make a lasting dent in the public imagination. A Duke superteam of NBA-ticketed freshmen running highly-ranked Kentucky off the court is one of them. And it was the style of it—with an overwhelming transition game and the monstrous Williamson displaying uncanny ability on both ends—as much as the result that could have a lasting impact.
As college basketball has struggled to maintain relevance outside of March in recent years, its most recent crossover stars have been the 2014-15 Kentucky juggernaut that reached the Final Four undefeated and Trae Young, an outstanding NBA-ready freshman who played with a jaw-dropping flourish. If Tuesday is any indication, this Duke team could combine the appeal of both, with the added intrigue of its top three stars perhaps comprising the top three picks in next June’s draft—a prospect that lends itself to marveling as much as it does to debate. When you consider that Duke may be, for better or worse, the program that most reliably draws a reaction from sports fans, the Blue Devils check just about every attention-getting box.
It may not be enough to prevent the next couple months of college basketball, with its sterile neutral-site tournaments and low-stakes matchups, from being largely overshadowed by the forces that typically hog the sports world’s oxygen each winter. And it may still prove something of a blip, a highly-visible aberration read into too deeply on account of its stage and primacy. But if what Duke did on Tuesday is any indication, it will be an enthralling team to watch—perhaps enough so that people actually do.
• The final, paranoid days of (former) Browns coach Hue Jackson, and the resilience of Baker Mayfield. Go inside the latest round of dysfunction in Cleveland. (By Robert Klemko)
• It’s clear that there’s not another team in the country like Duke. (By Jeremy Woo)
• Class couple: Jon Gruden and Reggie McKenzie. Here’s hoping they last until prom. The MMQB hands out NFL half-yearbook superlatives. (By Conor Orr)
• The fourth episode of Fall of a Titan: The Steve McNair Story is out. Give a listen to our serialized SI True Crime podcast here.
• With LeBron gone, the Cavs’ flaws are exposed for all to see. (By Rob Mahoney)
Art of the Meal: The Weirdest Eats Around the NHL and NBA
By Dan Gartland
Nothing beats the ballpark when it comes to creative food and drink, but other sports venues are catching up. NBA and NHL fans no longer have to settle for an unimaginative hot dog or chicken fingers. There are plenty of innovative items available at arenas across North America this season for fans who are feeling more adventurous—and who remembered to bring heartburn pills.
Suns: Impossible Sliders (above)
Plant-based burger slider, chipotle lime aioli, lettuce and tomato, on a toasted brioche bun
Two years after the Impossible burger was introduced at restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles, it has gone mainstream. The meat substitute—served at several NHL and NBA arenas—seems like something out of a science fiction movie. It contains no meat whatsoever and yet tastes eerily like authentic beef.
Sharks: Tank Nachos
Tortilla chips with queso, beef brisket, cheddar cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream and pickled jalapeños
Nachos in a helmet are no longer exclusive to baseball. But when will NBA teams serve sneaker nachos?
Hawks: Cricket Taco
Roasted crickets, onion, cilantro and avocado
Insects are one thing, but we absolutely draw the line at serving tacos on flour tortillas. I had the opportunity to try roasted crickets at MLB’s Food Fest in the spring, and one woman’s review has stuck with me ever since: “My mouth is full of legs!”
Spurs: Bubble Waffle Taco (above)
Bubble waffle, choice of nitrogen ice cream, strawberry/blueberry pico, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, white-chocolate shavings, funnel fries
Is this really just a normal ice cream sundae? Yes, but the ice cream is made with liquid nitrogen and it’s served like a taco. It runs counter to Gregg Popovich’s whole fundamentals-based ethos.
Capitals: The D.C. Crab Dog
All-beef hot dog topped with crab dip, aioli spread and pickled red onion, on a pretzel bun
The fine people of the DMV area love nothing more than getting messy by bashing crabs with a hammer and sucking out their insides. This dog has the crab incorporated into a dip, but you’ll probably still want to wear a bib over your Alex Ovechkin jersey.
Vault Photo of the Week: Coach K Was a Player Too, You Know
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has guided plenty of elite players since taking over as the Blue Devils’ head coach in 1980. But there was a time decades ago when Coach K was simply Mike: No. 12 for the Army basketball team (under head coach Bob Knight, no less) in the late 1960s. He served as team captain his senior season and guided the Black Knights to the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Krzyzewski became the winningest Division I men’s basketball coach in the same building more than three decades later.
Photograph by SI’s Lane Stewart in 1985.
Best of the Rest
Editor’s note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week’s list is curated by Dan Greene.
• Voter suppression is well-documented—if still under-documented—in a number of states, but this short Jeffrey Toobin piece for The New Yorker on “the dismal situation in New York,” a purported hotbed of progressivism, is a helpful reminder of the pervasiveness of voting rights issues.
• Why do people seem so fixated on providing “tape” as evidence? Amanda Hess of The New York Times Magazine, in the latest of her many insightful explorations of modern culture, took a look.
• In “How a Woman Becomes a Lake,” a piece beyond my ability to summarize, The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino draws on literature to reflect how recent months have changed her.
• At The Cut, Noreen Malone examined a new-media success story, the Skimm newsletter, as it continues to grow in size and influence.
• The relationship between hip-hop and politics in the efforts to elect Stacey Abrams as Georgia’s governor was much different than it was when Young Jeezy put out “My President is Black” a decade ago, writes Christina Lee for the Washington Post.
• And lastly, a delightful Twitter thread via @Mulboyne of photos from a “sober Halloween” event where attendees must dress in everyday costumes and specificity rules.
Editor’s note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let’s chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.