For the first time since its inception in 2011, the Champions Classic will officially tip-off the college basketball season with four of the best teams in the nation.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari talked to the media this afternoon about his team’s matchup against Duke on Tuesday night and what he expects in the battle of juggernauts.
Overall, he understands it’s going to be a battle from start to finish, especially this early in the season.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Calipari said. “This early, I don’t know if any of us four coaches are looking at this shaking our heads like “why are we doing this to ourselves this early?”‘
No matter how hard the matchup will be with the star power the Blue Devils have in their arsenal, the Kentucky head coach feels it’s a learning experience either way. Considering you have the opportunity to fix any major mistakes right out of the gate, Calipari sees this event and its timing as a win.
“You play bad and win, or you play really well and lose,” Calipari said. “This is learning, and you really get a chance to say “what are some strengths? And what are some weaknesses? Is there anything glaring we have to address?” And it’s not bad we get to address it right away.”
After struggling on defense in both exhibition games, Calipari feels Kentucky’s matchup against Duke will be a great test for UK’s potential on that end of the floor.
“This is gonna be one where we find out “Can you guard people off the bounce?” because that’s what they’ll do. They’ve probably got three or four guys that catch it, and they’re driving,” Calipari said.
The main player to watch out for? Duke star forward RJ Barrett, who will almost certainly be the team’s leading scorer this season en route to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Barrett was a major recruiting target for Kentucky over the last few seasons, but he also already got the chance to take on Calipari, along with forward PJ Washington and guard Immanuel Quickley, back in 2017 during the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Egypt. While playing for Team Canada, Barrett nearly single-handedly defeated Calipari’s Team USA squad in the semifinals, finishing with 38 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists to knock America out of the winner’s bracket.
When asked if that experience against Barrett in Egypt will help in the team’s preparation going into the matchup, Calipari said the star Blue Devil is going to play with that same edge we saw in Egypt back in 2017 and it’s difficult to prepare for that.
“If he plays like he did against us there, then no, it doesn’t help,” he said. “He was really good. He made jumpers and and-ones and second shots. He was good, and they deserved to beat us. … I imagine he’s going to be that excited as he was to play the USA and win that game, he’ll be that excited to play us.”
As far as individual standouts go, Calipari said he’s looking for freshman forward EJ Montgomery to play well on Tuesday.
“The guys told me that EJ had some foul trouble, which is probably why he didn’t play more. He was good… I mean, this game here is a good game for him because of his length,” he said.
In Calipari’s mind, having gone through the Champions Classic one time already will also help players like PJ Washington, Nick Richards, and Quade Green. They’ll be prepared for the major spotlight.
“I don’t know if they have an edge (over anyone else), but their experience should make them less anxious than anyone in the building,” Calipari said. “They’ve been through it. But I don’t know. … this has become this humongous event, and to play it to start the year when we’ve barely started on out of bounds plays. All of the sudden we’re running up and down on national television.”
When it comes to Kentucky and Duke, Calipari understands the magnitude of the matchup because of the names alone. He knows this is just the first official game in a very long season, and the result really doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but he’s definitely excited for it.
“It’s two terrific, storied programs. Whoever is coaching here, maybe less so, but they’ve had great coaches there other than just Coach K. When I leave, when he leaves, I think people are going to say these are two of the top five (programs) in any given year, they’re always one, two, or three. They are those kind of programs. So when you get together and you play each other, you know? … I don’t want to make it bigger than it is, and I say that, but I’ll probably get more excited about this than I should.”
Win or lose, Calipari wants the world to know that his team will be able to learn from the good and bad to use going forward in the season.
“If you win, it’s huge,” Calipari said. “If you lose, you just put it in the rearview mirror, learn from it, and move on to the next game. That’ll hold for any of the teams playing in this thing.”