PORTLAND, Oregon — The best, most anticipated matchup of the first two days at the PK80 isn’t about which team is playing which.
The brackets will break in enjoyable ways, sure, but the head-to-head most basketball fans were hoping to see was not this school vs. that school. No, instead, it’s a battle of the baby-faced big men: Bamba vs. Bagley.
Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III vs. Texas freshman Mohamed Bamba will be happening Friday, offering a rare mano-a-mano tilt of towering talents. It’s uncommon to see two surefire NBA lottery picks standing 6-foot-10 or taller face each other so early in the season.
Appropriately, they’ll get it going in a pro arena, at the Moda Center in the semifinals of the Motion bracket. We’re going to get a post-Turkey Day delicious matchup because Duke beat Portland State 99-81 and Texas took out Butler 61-48 on Thursday. Those victories have forged a fun litmus test between two potential top-five 2018 picks.
“It’s going to get thrown out there as an individual battle, but honestly, I’m nothing without my teammates,” Bamba said. “They’ve got my back and I’ve got their back, and it’s gonna be great. It’s going to be a great game because of how connected we are as a team.”
NBA scouts — dozens of whom are in Portland for the unprecedented mega hoops event — will be in the building. It should be a pretty good crowd too, as Duke fans showed up in strong numbers on Thursday afternoon for a game against Portland State. And Bamba-Bagley isn’t just a tête-à-tête of two tremendous pro prospects. The NBA angle is enticing for obvious reasons, but college basketball benefits here because it rarely gets two star-power forwards/centers playing against each other. Such battles haven’t disappeared completely from the college game, but make no mistake: What we’ll be getting on Friday is a rarity.
Adding to the intrigue: Bamba and Bagley have never played against each other. In an era where the spring and summer basketball circuit often pits five-star players against each other — be it in tournaments or at apparel-sponsored showcase camps — most one-and-done types have usually seen or been around their competition.
Not the case now, so Bagley gets his latest test against someone he could wind up facing for a decade-plus in the NBA. He might not have a tougher task all season. Bamba is a defensive specialist with a wingspan out of the Jurassic period. Bagley’s got an all-around skill set that would allow him to start for more than half the teams in the NBA right now. It has been a terrific start to the season for Duke’s ballyhooed power forward. Bagley went for 18 points and 15 rebounds vs. Portland State, notching his fourth double-double of the season. He’s averaging 19.0 points and 10.0 rebounds — and that factors in his four-point, six-rebound game in only 10 minutes of play vs. Michigan State, when he had to leave with an eye injury.
“He’s a very good talent,” Bamba told CBS Sports. “To be a guy who can re-class up and still be in consideration as one of the best players in the country as a [would-be] senior in high school, it shows a lot. He’s super-talented and I can’t wait to get out there and play.”
Bamba’s at 11.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.3 blocks per game.
“Mo’s capable of doing more than he did tonight,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said. “On a typical night, he’s going to get more than five shots. I thought Butler did a good job of being physical with him, jumping him off the block. He can do some things on the perimeter. He’s going to get more than five shots and six points [most nights].”
With the long-limbed Bamba providing the law for the Longhorns, Butler had only 19 first-half points and shot 24 percent. No. 1-ranked Duke will be a considerable favorite against 4-0 Texas, but the Blue Devils did struggle against Portland State on Thursday, trailing for much of the first half and well into the second half.
“Not every day you can wake up, go to bed one night and say you’re playing the No. 1 team in the country,” Bamba said. “[We’ve got] guys who’ve looked at that program as a place that could be our home. We’re really excited to play this game.”
Bamba alluded to another plot line in play. See, he could easily be the one wearing Duke threads on Friday. If that were the case, would Bagley even have been able to choose to reclassify and play for Mike Krzyzewski? Bamba’s pick to play for Texas had likely ripple effects on the 2017-18 college basketball rankings. Bamba had Duke listed as a finalist, in addition to Kentucky and Michigan, before surprising many by picking Texas.
“It’s a little odd that you build these relationships with these coaches over the course of a year or two or maybe even three for some guys,” Bamba said. “Then you don’t pick their school — and you’ve got to play against them. Super excited, and it’s nothing but respect from both ends.”
It’s better that it worked out this way: for Duke, for Texas, for the PK80 to get this matchup.
“Our whole team ego is ‘We have something to prove,’ and I think it’s going to come to life,” Bamba said.
Bagley. Bamba. The best gift you won’t have to pay for on Black Friday.