Daniel Johansson looks to score against the Duke Blue Devils. PHOTO by MARTIN BAZYL, COURTESY OF THE VARSITY BLUES

What a week it had been for Canadian basketball. When last month’s Duke Canada Tour came to an end, the impact the event had on basketball development in Canada cannot be overstated. Canadians in Toronto and Montréal had the opportunity to witness the top two ranked players in the country, Zion Williamson and our homegrown talent, RJ Barrett.

As fortunate as these two cities were to host the Duke Blue Devils on their international tour, this event almost didn’t happen. The National Collegiate Athletic Association only permits college basketball teams to travel internationally once every four years during the summer to test themselves against competition abroad.

Initially, the Blue Devils were supposed to travel to the Dominican Republic last summer, but head coach Mike Krzyzewski fell ill, and their tour was postponed to this year, where RJ Barrett had the opportunity to play his first few games as a Blue Devil in the city he was raised in.

For the Varsity Blues, this provided another opportunity for international competition. They finished with a bronze medal in a tournament in Taiwan earlier this summer, and now they had another opportunity to build team camaraderie before their regular season begins in October.

The Blue Devils arrived in Toronto on August 24 for a media day presser at the Westin Harbor Castle. Coach K opened up with high praise for Canada and the amazing relationship he’s had with Jay Triano, head coach of the Canada basketball team. When asked about his first time in Toronto, he had this to say: “I didn’t realize what a great city Toronto was. So multicultural. A world city. Not just a great Canadian city, but a world city. It really opens its arms to all different types of cultures.”

Before tip-off on Friday evening, the atmosphere was electric. The parking lot was filled with school buses that carried students and families travelling from Duke University. The crowd looked like a sea of royal blue, filled with fans from across Ontario, here to witness this rare opportunity. Former Varsity Blues athletes were also in attendance to support the current roster, as well as NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson and Canadian track star Andre De Grasse.

Streamed on ESPN and TSN, this was likely the first time our Varsity players competed on national television, and while the nerves were likely there, they didn’t show. The Blues came out strong and hung around the far more talented Blue Devils. Leading the way was fourth-year forward Nikola Paradina, who finished with a team-high 15 points alongside three assists and three baskets from the perimeter.

While some fans came to support RJ Barrett, there were many fans in the arena waiting for Duke forward Zion Williamson to get off on a fast break and showcase his vertical ability. That opportunity came minutes into the first quarter, when Williamson stole the ball, glided in the air for what seemed like an eternity, and dunked, which sent the crowd into a frenzy.

The final score was 96–60 for the Blue Devils as they separated themselves in the second half, but that wasn’t truly indicative of how competitive the matchup was. As the buzzer sounded, our Varsity Blues did not hang their head in defeat; the team put forth their best effort against the top-ranked school in the US.

“I think it was a tremendous experience for our players. It’s once in a lifetime to play against a program that is so historically significant. Their current roster is really quite something so for our guys to compete against them is really special,” said head coach John Campbell.

Krzyzewski also spoke highly of the Varsity Blues, saying “Toronto does what they need to do with their talent, that is to kind of spread you and get shuffle cuts off the high post… they keep their spacing well.”

The Blue Devils finished the week 3–0 after defeating the Ryerson Rams and the McGill Redmen as well. As the Duke Canada Tour concluded, Coach K had this to say about their time spent here: “The guys loved it. My players loved it, they didn’t like it, they loved it… As good as we thought we’d feel about the whole experience, it’s exponentially better… The three coaches and theirs teams, they were fabulous in preparing and testing us.”

For Canadian programs to have the opportunity to go against one of the most respected basketball programs in the world comes with invaluable experience to prepare them for the season ahead. The Varsity Blues will be back in preseason action on September 28 against the Dalhousie Tigers.

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