“They are the clear-cut preseason favorite because of talent as well as the blend of youth and experience.”
“They are the unquestioned preseason No. 1 team, no matter which poll you choose as your guide.”
“They are the overwhelming favorite to win it all entering the season, and I think they will make good on that potential by cutting down the nets next spring.”
“They can win every game they play…the “U-word” (undefeated) can be uttered this season.”
No, we haven’t gone back in time two years, when Kentucky was the overwhelming favorite to win it all. Those are all headlines from the past few weeks about Duke from various national media members including Jeff Goodman and Jay Bilas. Despite having the same number of five-star recruits (six) as Kentucky and a similarly loaded freshman class, Duke is the one in the spotlight this fall, while John Calipari and his squad are somehow flying under the radar (or, as much as you can when you’re Kentucky).
None of Sports Illustrated’s college basketball writers picked Kentucky to make the Final Four, while 14 of the 31 experts at ESPN had Kentucky in their Final Fours, with only two choosing the Cats to win it all. In comparison, Duke was an unanimous Final Four pick at Sports Illustrated and close to it at ESPN, with 30 of the 31 experts picking the Blue Devils to make the Final Four and 21 to win it all. The story was much the same at CBS Sports, where three of the four main writers picked Duke to win it all and Kentucky only showed up in two of the Final Four predictions. Now might be a good time to remind you that while Duke is ranked first in all of the preseason polls, Kentucky is close behind at number two, and John Calipari has made the Final Four four of his seven seasons in Lexington. And, oh yeah, this Kentucky team is loaded.
I don’t come here to bury the national media for their Blue Devil fixation; I come to praise them. The best thing that could happen to Kentucky this season is Duke being college basketball’s darling. Hear me out.
Someone else gets to shoulder that pressure
Two years ago, all eyes were on Kentucky, that beautiful juggernaut of a squad, which was similar to this year’s Duke team in terms of experience and young talent; however, the 2015 Cats shouldered the burden beautifully, rolling through the season like a well-oiled machine, picking up momentum until…well, you know. Will the Blue Devils wear the yellow jersey as well? They’re not off to a great start, with three star freshmen hurt (Jayson Tatum is expected to be back for tomorrow’s opener, Harry Giles is expected to return later this month, and there’s still no word on Marques Bolden). That’s just bad luck, but will the injuries set the Blue Devils back at all in terms of conditioning and chemistry?
Also, let’s not lie; going undefeated in conference play was much easier in the SEC than it would be in the ACC. Regardless, Jay Bilas — who famously gave the 2015 Cats a pep talk in the Bahamas about their potential — thinks Duke can do it.
“Duke can win every game it plays, and a season like Kentucky had in 2015 is not out of the question, even in the ACC gauntlet Duke must run,” the ESPN guru and former Blue Devil wrote last week. “The “U-word” (undefeated) can be uttered this season in Durham.”
It can, but are the Blue Devils ready for the pressure that comes with it?
Kentucky’s ups and downs won’t be sensationalized (as much)
While Duke finds its footing under the microscope, Kentucky will be free to do the same, but without the same level of scrutiny. It will probably always be news when Kentucky loses, but hopefully, with Duke firmly in the spotlight, the Cats’ highs and lows won’t be sensationalized quite as much, which could make things easier on this young squad. Sure, Kentucky’s 93-point exhibition win over Asbury grabbed headlines and the Cats have several marquee games coming up in which to turn some heads, but hopefully the national media will be so preoccupied with DukeFest 2016 they won’t even notice.
If Duke falls short, it will be the greatest thing ever
One thing I think the Big Blue Nation learned the hard way in 2015 was the higher you climb, the further you can fall. I know I’m not alone when I say I believed Kentucky’s run that year was meant to be, a cosmic gift from the basketball gods to reward the most diehard fanbase in all of sports. So, when that run came to an abrupt end, the fallout was absolutely crippling. I’m still not over it. Remember the heat Calipari took (even though his team had just won 38 straight games) and the twisting of the knife when Duke celebrated in our confetti two days later? It was awful.
Imagine if that happens to Duke this year. Not only can we get some glee from it since it’s, you know, Duke and we’re reminded of “The Shot” every single March, the narrative from the national media will be particularly interesting to watch. Will Coach K, the vaunted saint of all things roundball, still keep his crown, or will he face the same criticism Calipari did for not winning it all when it was set up on a tee?
Even better, what if the roles truly are reversed in the postseason and it’s Duke that stumbles and Kentucky that swoops in to steal the title? Well…
You better believe Calipari will use this for motivation
Yes, Duke will have all the pressure and the Cats can develop without each high and low being front page news, but the number one reason Duke being the national media darling is the best thing ever for Kentucky? Motivation, baby. There’s nothing John Calipari loves more than having the odds stacked against him, and the media obsessing about Duke while sleeping on his squad gives him a rallying cry.
Not only that, this is a chance to beat Coach K at the game Cal invented but K has gotten universal praise for the past two years. We joke about how Coach K copies Calipari’s model — Calipari even acknowledged it at media day — but I think the rivalry between the two has increased exponentially in his mind. Duke’s now getting just as many good players as Kentucky, and a title this year would move them ahead of Kentucky as the premier program in college basketball in the eyes of recruits. If that doesn’t light a fire under you, I don’t know what will.
So, go ahead, national media, tell us more about how Grayson Allen is the greatest thing to happen to college basketball since the peach basket and ignore the fact that Duke doesn’t really have a true point guard. Please, build that pedestal up a little higher and keep ignoring what’s happening here in Lexington. We’ll see you in Phoenix, where we’ll gladly help you trash the Duke 2017 National Champions story you wrote in November.