If you turn on ESPN at any given moment, odds are pretty solid the Duke basketball program and the coming season will be brought up in some form or fashion. On their current international trip to Canada, the Blue Devils won all three of their games, and the worldwide leader of sports has made them the center of attention.
Highlights of Zion Williamson’s electric dunks and RJ Barrett’s elite scoring ability have been put on loop over the course of the week, specifically on SportsCenter’s Top Ten plays. And when the season starts, specifically with Cam Reddish back in the fold, that’s only going to continue.
And Kentucky fans should be happy about that.
Back in 2014-15, Kentucky was the No. 1 team in the nation from the second they arrived on campus until they fell to Wisconsin in the Final Four. They had the perfect mix of talent, leadership, and depth, and it led to a near-undefeated season. As arguably the most impressive and dominant team in college basketball history, they had the target on their backs every night, and they overcame it every game right up until the end. They were the ones with non-stop ESPN/media coverage from start to finish.
This year, as we saw in the Wildcats’ trip to the Bahamas, UK has something similar. Maybe not as top-heavy in talent, but their depth is something no one in the country can top. Maybe not as elite defensively, but you could argue they fair better on the offensive end of the floor. Former South Carolina Gamecock and Team Toronto player Duane Notice, who has now played both teams, said there were obvious similarities in 2014-15 and 2018-19.
“I think they’ve very long,” he said following his team’s loss to Kentucky in the Bahamas. “Obviously, I played against Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, those guys. These guys are long, from one to five. That’s the difference. Even their wing players are very aggressive and they’re very long. They can get on the offensive glass and they really know how to move the ball.”
But unlike the 2014-15 season, the media attention is on Duke’s “greatest recruiting class of all time,” featuring the nation’s top three recruits. They get the crazy hypotheticals and debates to drive up clicks, listeners, and viewers. Kentucky has the opportunity for a special season without the hoopla. Obviously the spotlight will be on the opening game, but from there (even if/when the Cats steamroll the Devils), Duke’s impressive dunks and highlights will still be the center of attention. Kentucky will be able to develop as a team throughout the season without the pressure. It’s the perfect storm.
After watching all three of their games in Canada, I came away very impressed with Williamson and Barrett, but there’s a significant dropoff from there. Reddish will be able to shoot at a high level and Tre Jones will be a solid game manager, but there are major issues in the paint and with depth. As the team’s starting center, Marques Bolden struggled against players not even close to the caliber of athletes he will be facing in the season. And the players behind him were worse, although I was a fan of David Robinson’s son, Justin.
Beyond Jones at point guard and Reddish at shooting guard, the team’s backcourt has major holes, as well.
In these games, Williamson was getting winded midway through the second quarter. He put up crazy numbers against horrid competition, but when he battles real Division 1 frontcourt players, the fatigue of a 6-foot-6, 285-pound player is going to set in. What happens then? Will Barrett, who I firmly believe can average 25 points per game this year, be able to win games by himself? What if there’s foul trouble? How will a team dominated by freshmen playing the same position fair under the spotlight?
Who knows, and that’s not Kentucky’s problem. They’ll be able to enjoy all the success without the same baggage. They’ll talk about Kentucky, but it won’t be remotely close to what we’ll see from the other shade of blue.
The Duke slob-fest is real, and though it’ll be annoying, the Cats will end up with the better end of the deal.