Kentucky and Duke. It doesn’t get much better than this. Ultimate bragging rights for fans is on the line as two blue-blood college basketball programs square off in Georgia. The hostile “road” environment of the season opener in Brooklyn has passed, and the friendly confines of Catlanta await the Big Blue Nation. The Blue Devils will surely bring their rowdiest, but it will be up to those faithful who made the 380 mile journey to the Georgia Dome to drown out the Dookies.
PG: Jarrod Polson vs. Seth Curry
Ryan Harrow is still suffering from flu-like symptoms — like most of us are this time of year — and he understandably did not make the trip to Atlanta. That means it will all be up to the hero from Brooklyn, Jarrod Polson. It seems likely he will get the start, not only because he earned it from his play last week, but because he is legitimately the best option to run the offense. It has been said countless times already, but Polson has practiced against the likes of John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague — all NBA point guards. It should be no surprise that he has quietly developed as a ballplayer, much in the same way that Josh Harrellson did while practicing against DeMarcus Cousins and other elite Calipari big men.
Polson has a tough assignment going against Seth Curry. The senior is entering his third season as leader of the Blue Devils, so it is safe to assume he is more than comfortable leading the team. Curry doesn’t have mind-blowing stats in his career, but he has the potential to hang gaudy numbers against Kentucky. His skills range from a slashing and scoring to what a good point guard is supposed to do. Be the glue for the play makers. Find the open man and get him a shot. Drive the lane to create space on the outside, or initiate the feed down low for an easy bucket. Curry has the potential to pick apart Kentucky like a well-trained quarterback does against the Cats secondary on the gridiron.
SG: Archie Goodwin vs. Tyler Thornton
Between the mesmerizing play of Jarrod Polson, the solid contributions from Kyle Wiltjer, and the abysmal demonstration of rebounding, one other aspect from the Maryland game may have been overlooked. Archie Goodwin played 37 minutes, playing with high intensity the entire way. He finished with 16 points and drove the lane with authority, like the prototypical Calipari slasher. When he wasn’t converting the layups he was earning a trip to the foul line, where he knocked down 9-of-11 from the stripe.
The junior Tyler Thornton is entering his first season as a real contributor for Duke after averaging just four points last season. Thornton and Curry take double-duty as point guard, and as a result the Blue Devils backcourt has a lot of versatility. Goodwin is training to be a point guard with the guidance of Calipari, so he can certainly fire right back — not that it’s necessary to play defense to stifle the one-two punch. Curry will likely take the reins from the tip, but don’t be surprised to see Thornton mixing it up in an effort to confuse the Cats defense. Look for plenty of pick-and-rolls as Duke tries to get favorable matchups on the Kentucky switches.
W: Alex Poythress vs. Rasheed Sulaimon
Judging the players off a single game is ridiculous and unfair, as this entire roster is going to get better as the year progresses. Perhaps none will progress more than Alex Poythress. Once he “gets it,” Poythress will be a dominating force at both ends of the court. Against Maryland he looked slow getting back, lost on offensive sets, and confused in transition. It’s a steep learning curve as Poythress and the rest of the team are learning on the fly. But even at half-power Poythress is still better than half of the players in the country. But when it finally clicks — hopefully sooner than later — we will all know.
It was a quiet debut for Rasheed Sulaimon, who logged six points, four rebounds and four assists in 30 minutes against Georgia State last week. Sulaimon is the No. 18 overall player in the 2012 class and No. 6 shooting guard. Goodwin was ranked just ahead of Sulaimon as the No. 5 shooting guard in the class. But rankings don’t matter when the players are on the court, and Poythress has every reason to dominate this matchup if Mike Krzyzewski decides to stick with a smaller lineup. Poythress has a height and size advantage over Sulaimon, so if the Blue Devils need more length, look for Thornton to come out, Sulaimon to slide up to the 2 and Alex Murphy or Amile Jefferson to check in.
F: Kyle Wiltjer vs. Ryan Kelly
Kyle Wiltjer and Ryan Kelly are practically the same player. Both have the ability to range out while raining down three from behind the arc, and have the ability to score from down low with relative ease. But it is Wiltjer that means more to his team. The sophomore once again showed his favorite weapon against Maryland; a sniper-like accuracy from three-point land that he doesn’t even need to watch go in. He dropped 19 points on 4-of-6 shooting from deep. But rebounding is where things need to change.
Kelly is just as dangerous from outside at Wiltjer is. Last season he averaged nearly 12 points per game on 41% shooting from the perimeter. Kelly is (obviously) a big, physical brusing body that will crash the boards with urgency. Rebounding and getting a body on the Duke big men has to be a number one priority for Kentucky. The Cats cannot be out-rebounded like they were against the Terps, giving 23 offensive rebounds back for second- and sometimes third-chance points, and expect to win. One last thing about Ryan Kelly to remember is that he has a poop tooth.
C: Nerlens Noel vs. Mason Plumlee
Nerlens Noel is right there with Alex Poythress — very close to taking his already dominate game to an entirely new level. Noel will be going against what is probably the best big-man he will face all season in Mason Plumlee, Duke’s version of Anthony Davis. But he need not be intimidated. Rebound. Rebound. Rebound. That should be the game plan for Noel, at least to start the game. Don’t dig a hole you can’t work out of. That starts with securing the basketball on missed shots.
Plumlee scored 19 against Georgia State, hauled in 14 rebounds and collected four blocks in 35 minutes. One thing that Duke cannot do and expect to win against Kentucky is play without Mason Plumlee. Attacking the rim and drawing fouls early against him would be a viable strategy for Calipari to try. But it won’t be easy. Last season Plumlee only averaged a little over two fouls per game in 28 minutes.