On Wednesday night, freshman Jayson Tatum looked like the really good NBA player he will very soon become. In the process, he added yet another piece of evidence for why Duke is inevitably going to be one of the favorites -- no matter its record -- to win the national title when we get to the NCAA Tournament.
Few groups are as talented, and as deadly to break out against any opponent on a given night, like Duke (21-5). It takes six straight wins to capture an NCAA title, and for the second time this season the Blue Devils have compiled a winning streak that long. No. 12 Duke went on the road to play 14th-ranked Virginia, got a 65-55 win and the team can entirely thank Tatum for getting to fly home as victors. Virginia is slumping but it’s still one of the toughest defensive matchups/scouting reports in the sport. For 75 percent of the game, the Cavaliers had Duke checked.
Then Tatum broke them.
He finished with a career-high 28 points, plus nine rebounds. He had 21 second-half points, including a 5-of-6 spray behind the arc. One 3 after another, the long-limbed youngster just killed Virginia, which uncharacteristically has now lost three home games this season. Tatum gave the litany of NBA scouts in the building plenty to think about. He chopped away at UVA (18-7) with aggressive, step-into-it 3-pointers, cashed a few with a hand his face, and even hit one falling away. NBA-ready moves left and right. Very strong, very smooth. If you missed it, just check the video up top. And don’t worry: You’ll see this stuff a lot come June, when his draft highlight reel includes basically every 3-pointer he hit in Charlottesville.
🐐: "The ending was like 2 years ago here for us. A freshman came up big. Tyus then. Jayson was huge tonight."— Duke Basketball (@DukeMBB) February 16, 2017
Tatum was efficient, too. He made eight of his 13 attempts, scored 12 of Duke’s final 13 points, did not force his shots and was reliable around the rim on the defensive end. The win gives Duke a 4-1 record against Virginia in the past four seasons; the Blue Devils are the only team in the ACC to be above .500 against Tony Bennett’s team.
This after Duke scored a season-low 21 points in the first half.
And check out that Mike Krzyzewski quote in the embedded tweet. You remember what Tyus Jones eventually did: He got the MOP award in 2015, when Duke rolled to a national title. Jones was a different player in a lot of ways from Tatum but he did have a knack for hitting big shots.
Now we’re seeing that from Tatum.
You could picture it happening in March, or even April, too. Tatum has hit his groove and managed to do it without taking shots away from Luke Kennard, who remains the team’s most valuable player.
But remember, against North Carolina last Thursday, Tatum put up 19 second-half points and pushed Duke clear of the Tar Heels. In the close-shave home win less than 40 hours later against Clemson, he had a huge shot as the second half drew to a close that closed off Clemson’s hopes. Over the past five games, Tatum has averaged 17.4 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field and 55 percent from 3.
Duke is 9-4 in the ACC. More and more, this team is giving us reasons to firmly -- not tentatively, firmly -- put it in the elite company of college basketball’s best teams. That wasn’t something anyone could do from basically mid-November until ... now?
Beating Virginia, not the win over UNC, is Duke’s best victory of the season.
So here’s the reality: Duke is a two-loss team when Krzyzewski is on the bench. And with the roster fully available, Duke is undefeated. Kennard remains vital and Grayson Allen has seemingly been able to move on from the melodrama. Now you get Tatum playing like a top-five freshman over the past two weeks, and Duke looks set to challenge the rest of its conference and the rest of college basketball.