Tonight Kentucky and Duke will renew their rivalry for the first time since 2001’s overtime thriller where Coach K’s Blue Devils got the best of Tubby’s Wildcats by a score of 95-92. While the two schools rarely play one another, don’t tell the fans who still feel a large amount of animosity toward each other. This hostile feeling is largely due to the numerous intense games which have been played in series history. Tonight should be no different from an intensity and competitiveness standpoint as Duke enters the game as a 2-point favorite over the Harrow-less ‘Cats. While losing your starting Point Guard is enough of a handicap, Duke will present numerous challenges for the Wildcats who are still trying to gather themselves after a close game with Maryland. So to give some insight on what to look for against Duke, I examined their advanced statistics to see what makes them effective.
Traditionally Duke is an excellent 3-point shooting squad, and this season looks to be no different as Duke returns two fantastic shooters in Ryan Kelley and Seth Curry. The duo respectively shot 40.8% and 38.3% from the perimeter last year and continued their successes against Georgia State where they combined to shoot 40%. Anytime an opponent can light it up from three it’s concerning, but it’s especially worrying knowing that Kentucky allowed Maryland to shoot 19 three-point attempts in the opening game. Now this likely had much more to do with the fact that Maryland was trailing for a majority of the game and had to shoot many threes to catch-up, but the point stands as many of the attempts were only lightly contested. Another thing to watch when Duke has the ball is their uncanny ability to get to the free throw line. They return two players in Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly who draw 5.5 and 5.3 fouls per 40-minutes respectively. Given the youth of Kentucky’s roster and the foul trouble we got into early against Maryland, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Duke use their two big men to force early fouls against Noel and Cauley-Stein.
Last season was incredibly uncharacteristic for a Coach K defense as it was rated 70th nationally in adjusted defense, allowing 95.8 points per adjusted possession (by far his worst of the efficiency era, 03-present). Their biggest problems were not being able to force opponent turnovers and not stopping anybody from scoring in the interior. While the Blue Devils should be improved turnover wise this season, they only have one real threat to force steals in Seth Curry, who forced 1.3 per game. This lack of turnovers forced around Kentucky’s guards will be excellent for our team who is lacking starting Point-Guard, Ryan Harrow. Duke’s interior scoring defense won’t be much improved either as they lost one of their better post defenders in Miles Plumlee to the NBA Draft They now depend on Mason Plumlee who ranked 182nd in block percentage last season, Ryan Kelly who ranked 344th in block percentage, and red-shirt Freshman, Marshall Plumlee (who has yet to accumulate a statistic) to defend the post. If Kentucky’s much more athletic interior players Poythress, Cauley-Stein, and Noel stay out of foul trouble this has the potential to be a heavy mismatch in favor of Kentucky.
This game certainly has the potential to be another classic in the Duke-Kentucky series. Both teams are evenly matched at this point in the season and on a neutral court no one team can clearly say that they’re the favorite. Duke has the offensive firepower around the perimeter to beat Kentucky, but Kentucky also has efficient players to sink the Blue devils from deep. If there truly is a mismatch it would be defensively where Kentucky is much more athletic and physical than Duke’s interior scorers. But, if Kentucky has lapses in rebounding reminiscent of the Maryland game Duke can take advantage of that in ways that Mark Turgeon’s squad couldn’t. One thing that is certain, it’ll be a building experience for Kentucky regardless of outcome.