No. 5 Duke vs. No. 1 Gonzaga: Stakes are high in Friday's Las Vegas battle
LAS VEGAS — Duke players and staff were still in the air while Gonzaga was grounding No. 2 UCLA on Tuesday night.
The Blue Devils left Durham's airport late that evening and watched from 20,000 feet as their Friday night opponent and No. 1 team in the country trounced the Bruins 83-63 in the opening game of the Continental Tire Challenge.
"How could you not be impressed with how they played?" associate head coach Jon Scheyer said Wednesday. “There’s a belief you can tell they play with. There’s a swagger that they play with. There’s a confidence they play with, and rightfully so.”
No. 1 Gonzagaturns showdown with No. 2 UCLA into 83-63 rout
No. 5 Duke (6-0) opened the season with an impressive 79-71 win over a top-10 ranked Kentucky team at Madison Square Garden but has faced little resistance in five straight home wins at Cameron Indoor.
No. 1 Gonzaga (5-0) will be the Blue Devils' final ranked opponent before ACC play begins on Dec. 22 against Virginia Tech, providing Duke's best early opportunity to prove it'll be a legitimate national title contender in March.
Tipoff is at 10:30 p.m. ET from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
“I think for us as a coaching staff, we’ve learned we can be as good as anybody," Scheyer said. "We’re probably not close to the finishing product we will be by the end of the season.
Paolo Banchero vs. Chet Holmgren
Friday will be more than just a showcase of two of the best programs in the country. It will be a rare look at the two best NBA prospects in the nation:
Duke's Paolo Banchero vs. Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren.
"Me and Chet are cool. We've known each other for about two years," Banchero said Monday after scoring a career-high 28 points in a 107-81 win over The Citadel. "It's not like we don't like each other or nothing like that."
Holmgren, a freshman like Banchero, was the top-ranked recruit in the Class of 2021. He may be 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan but he has the ability to create his own shots, hit 3s and bring the ball up the court. He's averaging 13.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3.5 blocks a game for the Zags.
It's likely Duke's big men Mark Williams and reserve forward Theo John will spend most of the game trying to shut down Holmgren.
Banchero is seen as a much more polished product than Holmgren, a modern big man with the ability to play almost any position.
In his first six games, Banchero has averaged 17.8 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.5 steals in just 28 minutes a night while shooting 62% from two-point range and 31% from three-point range. Only three other players have reached those per-game averages through an entire season since 2002, including Zion Williamson (Duke), Ben Simmons (LSU) and Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse).
"Paolo has blown us away with how coachable he is," Scheyer said. "And for a guy with the amount of hype he had going in, always taking the coaching. He always wants to improve."
"Paolo is having a sensational year," coach Mike Krzyzewski said Monday. "But he can get a lot better."
Homecoming for Banchero
Friday's game will also be a homecoming of sorts for Banchero, a Seattle, Washington, native.
It will be Duke's only West Coast game this season.
“Me being from Seattle, it’s a big one," Banchero said. "When the game got announced last year or whenever it got announced or scheduled, my mom, she jumped on it. She hit up all my friends’ families to make sure they had tickets. I’m going to have about 30-plus people there for me.”
Banchero will also be reunited with Gonzaga's freshman point guard Nolan Hickman, another Seattle native, whom he considers to be one of his best friends.
The two played together in the 2021 McDonald’s All-American game.
"He's going to have a whole village with him," Banchero said. "I could imagine about 60-70 people who I'll know there."
Little history between the two
Duke and Gonzaga have only faced each other three times and never on the other's home court.
Duke defeated the Bulldogs 76-41 in 2009 in New York City and 66-53 in Houston, Texas in 2015. Gonzaga won the last meeting in 2018, an 89-87 thriller in Hawaii with the Blue Devils sporting a roster that included Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish.
"We’re going there to take care of business," said junior forward Wendell Moore, who had 22 points against The Citadel. "The venue in Vegas, that’s going to be a sold-out venue. It’s probably been sold out for the past three months. That’s a game that we all want to play in, that’s a game that we wait for, and that’s a game that we come here for. We’re going to be ready for it.”
David Thompson is an award-winning reporter for the USA Today Network covering NC State and Duke athletics. He can be reached at email@example.com, at 828-231-1747, or on Twitter at @daveth89.