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USATSI

NEW YORK -- At any other game, in any other year, fans who come to an arena to watch Duke play wouldn't lay eyes on Mike Krzyzewski until a few minutes before the starting lineups were announced. That's customary. But at this game, in this year, the winningest coach in Division I history actually walked to mid-court here inside Madison Square Garden 90 minutes earlier than normal so that he could be publicly honored by ESPN at halftime of the Champions Classic opener between Kansas and Michigan State.

That was the first sign this was a different deal,.

Coach K has spent basically every week since he announced his plan to retire at the end of this season explaining how he wouldn't waste much time focusing on the end of his legendary career. And I'm sure that's his intention. But it's been clear for months, and it was undeniable Tuesday night, that Krzyzewski's farewell tour will be the dominant storyline of this season regardless of whether he wants it to be or not. It's unavoidable and in your face -- so much so that at halftime of Duke's eventual 79-71 season-opening victory over Kentucky, the in-house televisions at MSG aired what amounted to a pre-taped Zoom call of John Calipari, Tom Izzo and Bill Self casually discussing Krzyzewski's impact on the sport.

It seemed to go on forever.

When it was finally over, Duke took over.

The Blue Devils opened the second half on a 30-19 run and built a 15-point lead that was never completely erased, in part because their most high-profile freshman, Paolo Banchero, looked every bit the part of somebody who seems like the leading candidate to be the first overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward did things men his size don't normally do (because they can't). He took 11 shots, made seven of them and finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and two steals.

"I think a big thing for Paolo is how strong and comfortable he is with the ball," Krzyzewski said. "To have his size and [and skill], it's just unique. And he's got a good head. He's got good parents. They raised him hard."

I wrote a column that published Monday night in which I made the point that there's nothing crazy about thinking Krzyzewski's final game on the sideline could come in New Orleans at the 2022 Final Four, and what happened Tuesday night only reinforced that belief. Duke looked bigger, more talented, and just generally better than Kentucky, and this is a Kentucky team that was recently picked to win the SEC. Kentucky is not bad as much as Duke is just really good, a preseason top-10 that, believe it or not, might've been underrated. Yes, the nation's top-ranked recruiting class, according to 247Sports, belonged to another school (Memphis), and the nation's top-ranked prospect (Chet Holmgren), according to 247Sports, enrolled at another school (Gonzaga). But Duke was still the only school, according to 247Sports, to enroll three five-star prospects in advance of this season.

That showed up against UK.

Five-star freshman AJ Griffin, who was sidelined for part of the preseason with a knee injury, only played 10 minutes. But Duke's other five-star freshman, Trevor Keels, finished with a game-high 25 points thanks to a 10-of-18 shooting performance in 34 minutes on the court. If Banchero lived up to the hype, it was Keels who exceeded all reasonable expectations.

"Trevor is a great player," Krzyzewski said. "He weighs 230 pounds -- and if he was a running back he would know how to pick holes. ... He doesn't charge very much because he's so low and has great body control. For three straight years, he was probably the best player in the DC area."

Next up for Duke is six straight whatever-games it will use to develop chemistry and get Griffin more comfortable in advance of a showdown with top-ranked Gonzaga that's scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving. So we shouldn't see the Blue Devils get tested for the next couple of weeks. But on Tuesday night, here on the opening night of Coach K's final season, they were tested and they aced it.

They weren't perfect. But they were impressive. And they showed, quite clearly, that they're good enough to compete for what would be the sixth national title of their coach's Hall of Fame career.

"We're a great team," Banchero said matter-of-factly. "We're going to play together. We're going to play hard all 40 minutes. And, yeah, I mean, we're going to play ... like Duke."