Champions Classic Primer: Kentucky vs. Duke

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 6th, 2018

In the absence of significant injuries, it stands to reason that when the NCAA Tournament tips off in a little over four months from now, Duke and Kentucky will be viewed as two of the favorites to cut down the nets in Minneapolis. That is an elongated way of saying that the result of tonight’s top-five match-up in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis doesn’t mean all that much. But, it’s the start of a new season, and there’s really no better way to commence than having two national powerhouses square off in a game that will boast the most pound for pound talent that we will see all season long.

Duke and Kentucky Revisit Their Rivalry Tonight in Indianapolis (USA Today Images)

In something of a script flip, the Wildcats enter tonight’s game as the more experienced side with the less heralded freshmen. A trio of sophomores who combined to start a robust 80 games last year return to give John Calipari’s squad a relatively veteran feel. The returnee most likely to make the leap from precocious rookie to All-American is forward PJ Washington, a player who notched double figures in 11 of the Wildcats’ final 12 games last year. Classmate Nick Richards, who started every game as freshman, and Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis (two-time First-Team Pac-12) will combine to form one of the elite frontcourts in college basketball. The Kentucky group will be put to the test immediately, however, as Duke will counter with the three most highly-touted incoming forwards in the game. Consensus #1 recruit RJ Barrett, rim-rattling man-child Zion Williamson and elite prospect Cam Reddish will be difficult to slow down offensively despite being so green. It will be more interesting to see how they cope on the other end of the floor, as the Blue Devils under Mike Krzyzewski in the one-and-done era have struggled in mastering his patented man-to-man defensive schemes.

Another notable point of intrigue for Duke will be how the handful of returnees mesh with the newcomers. Will Alex O’Connell, the Blue Devils’ best pure shooter, be a primary beneficiary of all the defensive attention the freshmen class will demand? Will former McDonald’s All-American Marques Bolden prove healthy enough to provide a reliable low-post scoring option, or will his relative immobility be an impediment to the team’s spacing? On Kentucky’s side, is Quade Green, a player who showed signs of being a capable shooter and caretaker of the Wildcats’ offense a year ago, the answer to run the show? While Duke’s incoming class is frontcourt heavy, the Wildcats conversely bring in two five-star guards. Will either of Immanuel Quickley or Ashton Hagans prove to be another in a long line of Calipari’s dominant lead guards? And is another potential star freshman, Tyler Herro, capable of becoming the floor spacer that last year’s team sorely missed?

There is plenty of time for all these questions to be answered, and tonight’s game won’t be a referendum on much of anything other than how fun college basketball can be. But it is still our first look at meaningful hoops in over seven months and there are plenty of reasons to be excited for tonight’s Champions Classic nightcap.

Matthew Auerbach (70 Posts)

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