Q&A: Dan Shulman on R.J. Barrett vs. Zion Williamson, Duke’s early hype

Duke forward Zion Williamson goes up for a dunk in front of Kentucky guard Tyler Herro. (AJ Mast/AP)

The 2018-19 Division 1 NCAA basketball season kicked off with a bang earlier this week with a stunning Duke debut for Canadian R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson — the man he’ll likely be battling with all season long for the No. 1 spot in the 2019 NBA Draft — as their Blue Devils demolished Kentucky.

Sportsnet’s Toronto Blue Jays play-by-play man, Dan Shulman, who also has a similar role for ESPN’s college basketball coverage, was in Indianapolis calling the game and was as stunned as anyone was at the result.

We caught up with Shulman shortly after that game to get some of his thoughts on the result, Barrett and Williamson and the NCAA season in general, just as it’s getting started.

(Note: This interview has been edited for clarity)

Sportsnet: Before Duke and Kentucky took the floor Tuesday evening, a lot was made of the atmosphere. What was it like down there?

Dan Shulman: There was a buzz for a few reasons. Duke and Kentucky have as many fans and as passionate a fanbase as any program in the country, and they don’t play very often. So whenever you’ve got either one of them on the floor in an arena like that, a setting like that, there’s going to be a lot of buzz.

The first game ends, Kansas-Michigan State, and then as soon as the players leave the floor, here comes Duke and Kentucky to begin warmup and the crowd just goes nuts — like when they come to just start doing layups.

So there was a huge amount of buzz, and it was only heightened by the fact that there has been so much hype over guys like Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. Everybody wants to see these guys and this was their first real test. We’ve seen them in high school all-star games, we’ve seen them in exhibition games, but this was the first real game for these kids. So the energy in the building was palpable at the beginning of the game last night.

SN: Most were shocked by how badly Duke beat Kentucky. Were you surprised?

DS: It was totally stunning to me. I thought that Duke would win the game, but I didn’t think that they’d win it by 34 points.

I had seen Duke when they were in Canada, I did the games during the Canada tour in August when Cam Reddish and Tre Jones didn’t play, but I did see Williamson and Barrett. Obviously, the level of competition that they played when they were [in Canada] was not what they played against Kentucky. So, I thought it would be a close game, and I was really, really interested to see if Barrett and Williamson would be able to score as easily, and as often as they had for exhibition games, and they did.

So I was stunned. I thought Duke was better going in, but I didn’t think it would be anything like that. This is one of the most significant early-season results in many, many years of college basketball. To see a program like Kentucky look like a DIII team, or something, and get run out of the gym by Duke, it was amazing.

SN: The AP pre-season poll had Duke ranked No. 4 and Kentucky No. 2. Does Duke move up to No. 1 now after that performance?

DS: Duke’s going to go past Kentucky, obviously. So, at worse, they’re going to be No. 3. I think there’s a chance Duke goes up to No. 1.

Gonzaga was ranked one spot ahead of Duke and they had a very impressive win, albeit not over a team as good as Kentucky, so I think Duke will go to No. 2, maybe No. 1. The fun thing is, depending on how the tournament turns out, Duke and Gonzaga are both in Maui at the Maui invitational the week after next, and they’re on opposite brackets. So there’s an excellent chance we’ll see Duke play Gonzaga in two weeks, which would be another early-season game that would generate a lot of hype.

SN: Based off that first game, many want to anoint Williamson as the No. 1 overall pick in this coming draft. What do you think?

DS: No, it’s not that easy. He’s going to be a tremendous pro player, and I think he’s going to be a very, very high draft pick, but I wouldn’t anoint him as the No. 1. He could be No. 1, R.J. Barrett could be.

I know some NBA people that I’ve talked to who think that Barrett and his skills translate a little bit easier to the NBA than Williamson because Barrett, you could plug him in as a small forward in the NBA right now and he’d be great. He looks the part. He’s six-foot-seven, he’s 205 pounds, he’s long and lean but he’s strong enough — he’s not skinny — and probably will still get stronger. He looks like an NBA wing right now.

The thing with Zion is there’s nobody like him. There’s nobody to compare him to. I think people at the NBA level are going to spend this year trying to figure out what is he. What would he be in the NBA? Would he still be able to dribble around people? Would he still be able to jump over people? That sort of thing. He’s going to be a phenomenal player, this year and in the pros, but it’s way too early in my mind to say that either one of them is a lock for the No. 1 pick.

SN: Pulling back to look at the college season more generally, which conference do you believe will be the strongest?

DS: I think the ACC. The SEC is very good, but when you’ve got Duke looking like they do, you’ve got North Carolina who’s always good, Virginia is going to be a very good team, and I think Syracuse really is a team to keep an eye on. So I think the ACC has more teams that legitimately have a chance to make a really deep run.

And then when you look at programs like Virginia Tech, Clemson, Louisville, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida State you just see a lot of good teams. So I would say it’s the ACC.

SN: Of the power conferences, which is the weakest?

DS: I think probably the Pac-12 would be the weakest. When you look out west I think the two strongest teams are Gonzaga and Nevada, and not one of them are Pac-12 teams.

UCLA looks good, Arizona is not going to be a typical Arizona powerhouse team this year, I don’t believe. Oregon is going to be good, and possibly very good, but I don’t know if there’s a Final Four contender in the Pac-12, and I don’t know if they’re looking at getting more than three or four teams into the tournament.

SN: Outside of Duke’s super-froshies, what other freshmen are you excited to check out this season?

DS: What I saw Tuesday night, I thought Quentin Grimes for Kansas is terrific. He’s really good. He’s got an NBA body already: six-foot-five, 210 pounds at two guard. Shot it extremely well against Michigan State, physical, looks like a good defensive player, too. So I think he’s one that I’m excited to see.

The little I’ve seen of Bol Bol for Oregon, he looks special. I think he could be a unique talent. Manute Bol’s son, but he’s more skilled than his dad was and he looks like he’s going to be a sensational player for the short time that he’s in college.

And Romeo Langford at Indiana. I think he’s just an incredible talent. And for him to stay close to home was a huge get for the Hoosiers. I actually have Indiana against Duke in about three weeks. Looking forward to seeing that.

SN: Lastly, can we get your way-too-early national champion and national player of the year predictions?

DS: I was asked to make picks a week ago on ESPN, but based on what I saw Tuesday I’d like to revise that, so I’ll go with Duke for my national champion.

As for the player of the year, I’ll split the vote between Barrett and Williamson.

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