Duke vs. Kentucky, ReduxPosted by mpatton on November 13th, 2012
The Shot is part of college basketball’s canon. Basketball fans regardless of age know The Shot from its prominent place during March Madness, both in promos and commercials. Duke and Kentucky fans — at least the ones old enough to do so — remember where they were when it happened. They still remember that bitterest taste of defeat when victory seemed secure and the inconceivable high brought on by the most unlikely of victories. Kentucky fans remember the Christian Laettner stomp from earlier in that game, which, in another universe, meant Kentucky winning while Duke’s star center looked on from the locker room. A couple of decades and a self-deprecating charity performance have somewhat repaired Laettner’s standing with the Big Blue Nation. Somewhat. But there’s still a remarkable tension between two schools that haven’t played in over 10 years, which makes this game more than just two top 10 teams facing off early in the season.
Ironically, the players have far less historical weight attached to the game. No doubt Duke and Kentucky players alike know about The Shot, and some of the fan intensity between the two fan bases probably has worn off on the men who will decide the game. But fans hold onto the past much more than players, most of whom chose their school because they thought it was the best “fit” (because of facilities, coaches, branding or academics). Many players weren’t yet alive to see the storied game, and the ones who were breathing probably weren’t walking.
But this game is huge for Duke. This is a game to prove — both to critics and themselves — that last year was an anomaly and they can handle the task of defending an athletic perimeter. It’s a chance to grab a marquee win that will look very good come Selection Sunday. And it’s a chance to put the Blue Devils on the list of legitimate national title contenders. For Kentucky the stakes are a little lower. The team is already considered a contender — though that’s largely thanks to John Calipari‘s track record with top recruits than anything this group has actually done — and his team is very young. No one expects Kentucky to be at its best this early. Even for Calipari that expectation is unreasonable. But this is still a chance at a statement win.
Kentucky looked very rough around the edges against Maryland in its first game last Friday night. The Wildcats played brilliant defense for most of the game — discounting their inability to stop Alex Len and crash the boards — but their lead never felt safe in the second half. They were inconsistent on offense and gave up far too many second-chance opportunities. If Duke outrebounds Kentucky similar to how Maryland did, the Wildcats will lose. End of story. That said, a major reason Maryland got so many offensive rebounds is that it missed so many shots. With the news that Ryan Harrow won’t make the trip to Atlanta, Kentucky will need a lot out of Archie Goodwin and one other guard (Jarrod Polson or Julius Mays). He can’t run their offense with the recklessness he showed in some of the Maryland games. He’s unbelievably athletic, but can’t force things and needs to keep his teammates involved. Alex Poythress also needs to have a good game. He’s a match-up nightmare for Duke, but he was quiet offensively for much of the Maryland game.
Duke looked very pedestrian for most of its game over the weekend against Georgia State. With the exception of a few minutes on either side of halftime, Duke never looked dominant; however, the Blue Devils never looked like they were in trouble either. Quinn Cook looked like he’s still struggling with the same issues he did last season (notably, defense and decision-making), and Tyler Thornton got a lion’s share of the playing time because of it. More troubling for Duke’s prognosis as a contender was Alex Murphy‘s absence. The redshirt freshman didn’t play a single minute. After the game Krzyzewski implied Murphy sat because Georgia State’s lineup wasn’t a good fit for him, but it felt like a little more was going on. The better news for Duke fans is that center Mason Plumlee was dominant. Plumlee will have one of the more hyped match-ups of this game, as he’ll be facing off with top recruit Nerlens Noel. But Noel struggled against Maryland. He’s clearly a gifted shot-blocker, but the physicality of the college game undeniably affected his performance (and if there’s something Duke fans should trust Plumlee to be, it’s physical).
All in all, Kentucky has more talent but Duke is significantly more experienced, so I think Duke’s play in this game will be the determining factor. If Duke shoots well from beyond the arc and limits its turnovers, the Blue Devils should come out on top in this one. However, if Duke struggles from long range or lets Kentucky get into an offensive groove — especially with easy transition buckets — the Wildcats have an edge.