The hoops season has arrived and the big boys will be butting heads to start the season in Indianapolis. The Champions Classic is back for its eighth season with Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and Michigan State all sharing the big stage on the first Tuesday night in November. The Cats and the Blue Devils will be meeting in the nightcap for one of the most hyped college basketball season openers in quite some time.
We know of all the battles on the recruiting trail with the two schools that do the one-and-done best meeting for just the third time since John Calipari took over in 2009-2010. There will be a ton of NBA talent on the floor with both teams searching for huge resume building win to start the season.
Now it’s time to learn about just what exactly Duke has with Mike Krzyzewski entering his 39th season in Durham.
Nuts and Bolts
Coach K has been running things in Durham since the Ronald Reagan administration and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The Army West Point grad will turn 72 this season and has over 1,000 career victories to go along with a contract that pays him around $9 million per season. Life has been good to him on Tobacco Road.
Since K’s arrival at Duke, the Blue Devils have won five national titles, with 12 Final Four appearances, and 12 ACC regular season championships. For nearly three decades, the Blue Devils have emerged into a blue blood program and they are now an unquestioned iconic brand in the sport of college basketball. But don’t let the image of academia fool you, Krzyzewski has built this foundation on transcendent basketball talent.
During his watch, Duke has had seven different players bring home a national player of the year honor. The Blue Devils have had five different players receive national defensive player of the year honors. Duke has had numerous All-Americans and countless draft picks. You don’t win at a high level without top notch talent.
Entering this year’s clash, Kentucky owns the all-time series record by a count of 12-9. These two programs have split both of their meetings in the Champions Classic. In NCAA Tournament meetings, Kentucky owns a 3-2 edge. Since Coach K arrived in 1980, he has a 5-2 career record against Kentucky.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is currently a 2-point favorite with a total of 156. That’s a projected final score of 79-77. In games in the Champions Classic, both Duke and Kentucky own a 4-3 record.
The Blue Devils will be reloading in the backcourt this season, but this year there will be one more big change. For the first time in what feels like a decade, Grayson Allen and his 1,996 career points will no longer be out on the floor for the Blue Devils. With Allen gone and Duke’s starting backcourt from last year going the one-and-done route, the Blue Devils are on a full on youth movement this season.
In 2015, the Blue Devils won a national championship with Tyus Jones running point and this year they will be turning to another lead guard from Minnesota to run the show. Tre Jones is the younger brother of Tyus and he may be the most important piece on Duke’s roster. In two exhibition games, Jones dished out 18 assists and was an efficient scorer from the field. He appears to be the only point guard on the roster and the Blue Devils are going to need 35+ minutes from him on most nights this season.
Off the ball, Duke has a few two-guards but none of them will be starting this season. The two biggest recruiting wins for Duke from this past class happen to play the wing and how Mike Krzyzewski massages minutes and touches here could be the biggest key to the season. To start, we must focus on R.J. Barrett.
In Duke’s last exhibition game, the Canadian diaper dandy produced 32 points on 18 shots following a performance that saw him collect 23 points on 14 shots. The lefty can handle with both hands and is a threat to run the offense whenever he gets a touch. He will be the top pick in this summer’s NBA Draft and most people believe he will win national player of the year honors this season. Kentucky’s perimeter defense will have their hands full.
Playing next to R.J. Barrett will be another five-star recruit in Cam Reddish. The Pennsylvania native has NBA size and will be the man to play the off-guard spot for the Blue Devils this season. His ability to space the floor will be vital and Duke needs him to consistently knock down perimeter jump shots. Reddish could be the alpha at almost any other program but for Duke he’s going to have to be a role player. How he handles that role will determine how well this team performs this season.
In a reserve role, Duke will be turning to Joey Baker and Alex O’Connell to come in off the bench and provide outside shooting. To no one’s surprise, Coach K has a couple of white guys that can fill it up from three and these two will need to be vital bench pieces all season. Neither is capable of running the point but if Duke wants to play small ball both will play a big role.
Depth is a question, but with a guy like R.J. Barrett you may not have to worry about it. He’ll essentially serve as this team’s backup point guard and be the primary playmaker for the offense most of the season. However, his slashing style needs the floor spaced. Only time will tell if Duke has enough outside shooting to keep everyone happy.
The one that got away for the Big Blue Nation will be Zion Williamson and he’s going to play a very, very important role for Duke basketball this season. The social media superstar is already off to a hot start with highlight dunks and blocks, but the 6-foot-7, 285-pound big will have to prove he can play against size.
In two exhibition games, Zion Williamson is averaging 26 points and 8 rebounds. He hasn’t yet floated out to the three-point line and that is a very promising sign. For Duke to reach their potential, they need the South Carolina native to do the dirty work in the paint. The former blue-chip recruit needs to rebound and body up against the competition’s best big men on a nightly basis. Scoring could be limited but Williamson has the athletic ability to become one of the sport’s most dominant bigs.
Playing alongside the athletic freak will be a player most Kentucky fans are very familiar with. Marques Bolden has had quite the disappointing college career and after flirting with a potential transfer, he is back at Duke for his junior season. On nearly every night he will be the fifth scoring option for the Blue Devils but that may be a good thing. Duke just needs 15-20 solid minutes from him with rebounds, dunks, and some occasional rim protection.
Off the bench, Javin DeLaurier will spell Marques Bolden at the five spot and he brings more athleticism to the position. Going against Kentucky, don’t be surprised if he receives the most minutes. After that there is some questionable depth for Duke and foul trouble could be an issue all season.
They haven’t really gone with it yet, but it’s not hard to see that Duke’s most dangerous lineup will be a small ball group with Zion Williamson at the five. This lineup should have enough shooting and could be the most athletic unit in the country. Williamson as the only guy in the paint could be a dangerous proposition and if Duke could hold their own on the glass it could become a force in transition. Keep an eye on it if Coach K decides to unleash it in Indianapolis.
Keys to Victory
- With three sophomores returning and a grad transfer the caliber of Reid Travis, UK has a significant big game experience advantage entering this contest. Every freshmen that sees the floor on both sides will be gassed up for the first 8-10 minutes of action. UK must use this experience to take advantage of the aggressiveness. The veterans must set the tone and the pace to get UK to play how they want to play. Getting Travis touches on the block early and often should be an emphasis. This is going to be very difficult for Duke to contain and could create some foul issues for the Blue Devils.
- With a depth and size advantage in the frontcourt, Kentucky must hit the glass early and often in this matchup. Duke is only comfortable playing three bigs at the moment and only one of them would see minutes if he was in a Kentucky uniform. The Wildcats will play four different players in the paint and each needs to contribute energy on the glass.
- R.J. Barrett is a great player and he will get his 20+ points on nearly everyone he plays. In a game of this magnitude, he is going to be hunting for shots. Kentucky must make him volume shooter. In exhibition games, Barrett has been very efficient and has been able to get to the free throw line. UK must guard without fouling and make Barrett earn his points. Force him to be a contributor and take your chances with Duke shooting threes.
- The offense will come in a game like this. UK has plenty of weapons and they’ll find a way to produce enough points to win. Where UK must make strides is on the defensive end of the floor. UK needs to use its depth, pressure the basketball, and play together. Limit straight line drives, get back in transition, don’t give up second chance point. Make Duke grind for buckets in the half-court. This is not what they want to do and it is exactly how you want an offense filled with freshman to have to play like in November.
Trip Down Memory Lane
To get you in the right mindset for tonight’s battle of titans, here is Jamal Murray putting in work in the last meeting between these two programs. The current Denver Nugget put up an impressive stat line of 16-5-5-4 with Kentucky cruising to a double-digit victory at the United Center.