Duke’s visit to Canada a symbol of U Sports’ basketball growth

Sportsnet's Michael Grange discusses R.J. Barrett's expected role with the Duke Blue Devils on The Jeff Blair Show.

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Nikola Paradina caught the ball at the left elbow and stared down Duke’s R.J. Barrett – Canada’s NBA star in waiting – and calmly put the ball on the floor with his left hand and just enough to gain slight advantage.

The fourth-year urban studies major then put on the brakes even as Barrett was sliding hard to cut him off. Paradina gave a slight up fake and as Barrett rose to contest, the University of Toronto shooting guard stepped through and gently lofted a finger-roll that fell through the mesh.

It was a poised, pretty play and cut Duke’s lead over the home team to six midway through the second quarter. Not bad considering Duke came to Canada for their first-ever tour north of the border featuring stars hoping to graduate to the NBA while U-of-T’s best players are thinking graduate school.

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Duke’s biggest stars are Barrett and Zion Williamson, widely considered the top two freshman in U.S. college basketball.

They didn’t disappoint as they combined to scored 59 of Duke’s 88 points by the time they checked out with four minutes remaining in the Blue Devils’ 96-60 win.

Barrett led all scorers with 35 points on 26 shots, while Williamson has 24 points on 16 shots with several shocking dunks.

Paradina led U-of-T with 15 points on 13 shots, including three triples.

Duke improved to 2-0 on their tour after a victory on Wednesday night against Ryerson University in a game also played at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre. On Saturday morning, Duke takes their private plane to Montreal for a game against McGill University.

The duo who will be vying all season to be the first overall pick in the NBA draft next June helped blow the game open early in the third quarter. First, the 6-foot-7, 280-pound Williamson – who somehow sports a 45-inch vertical — split the defence for a massive two-handed dunk, before crushing a sky-high alley-oop by Barrett. A steal and dunk by Barrett followed and Ryerson was suddenly up by 26 after leading by 14 at half and seven after the first quarter.

But, if U-of-T didn’t get the win, they didn’t get embarrassed – much like Ryerson more than held their own on Wednesday. The latter is one of U Sports’ elite programs while the former is more middle-of-the-pack at the moment. That they hung in there may be a better indication of the improved quality of U Sports basketball than what Ryerson did in keeping Duke within 20 on Wednesday.

Simply, having Duke come north to play is a milestone and that they’ve sold out every game on their tour explains why.

“I think everything we’re seeing is coming on the backs of our young talent. That’s really what it is,” said Ryerson head coach Roy Rana. “The game’s exploding because of them. Sure, a lot of people, our grassroots coaches who have brought these kids along since they were 10, 11-years-old, our system has done a great job developing them but we have some really, really talented kids.

“R.J. maybe becomes the poster for that, it’s great to see everybody out here excited about him and his career and where that’s going, there’s so much shine around him, we’re just happy to kind of bathe in it for a little bit.

“Hopefully, the fans that come here get to appreciate our level a little bit, how talented our kids are, how hard they work,” said Rana. “There’s a few guys on our team where you’d say ‘Hey, they may not look out of place with Duke’ and I think that says a ton for where we are as a country and U Sports.”

The competition caught Barrett’s attention, even as the 18-year-old was scoring 69 points in two games.

“They [U-of-T] gave us a test. Both teams made us play, both teams are well coached and we had to pick it up, we started out slow in both games and they definitely came out and met us with intensity.”

For U-of-T, Paradina certainly looked comfortable operating against Barrett or anyone else across from him. For the most part, his teammates did, too, although there were times when Duke’s length and quickness across the board was a bit overwhelming, as should be expected.

But even as Barrett started his third-quarter dunk show, Paradina was calmly stepping into triples in transition before he had to sit with foul trouble. Growing up, he played with and against all kinds of D1 athletes with Toronto’s elite Northern Knights AAU program, but staying at home to go to school certainly hasn’t hurt his basketball development as he showed against Duke. He has some Division I interest himself but has no regrets:

“[Playing in the U.S.] didn’t work out, but honestly, I’m happy where I am,” he says. “I’ve gotten better as a player and hopefully I can play professionally overseas or something like that.”

It’s a message U Sports coaches wished would resonate a little louder at times:

For a lot of Canadian kids dreaming of playing for Duke or at least playing against them, staying at home does not mean they’re putting basketball on the back burner.

“Programs like Duke get guys who are already pros,” said Carleton head coach Dave Smart whose Ravens went 5-0 this past week – all blowout wins — against visiting Division I teams.

“We get guys who want to be pros but know they have to do a lot of work to try and get better. I tell our guys: If you were good enough, Coach K would be coaching you, but you’re stuck with me, so let’s put in the work and get better.”

Carleton has put several graduates into professional basketball overseas and Ryerson has as well, not that is the only measure of success in college basketball.

In the meantime, there are degrees to be earned and chances to play at a high level.

And for the lucky few this week, they can say they played the best U.S. college basketball can offer and didn’t have to leave home to do it.

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