Kentucky head coach John Calipari is coming off his first NCAA championship. Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski is coming off his second gold medal after leading the USA men’s basketball team at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
And the last time the pair coached against each other, Krzyzewski walked off the court with a 113-59 victory. But that was a pre-Olympic exhibition game with Krzyzewski coaching Team USA and Calipari leading the Dominican Republic national team, which did not qualify for the Games.
“It would be nice to have LeBron [James] and [Kevin] Durant join us Tuesday,” Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski said.
When No. 8 Duke faces No. 3 Kentucky at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta at 9:30 p.m. tonight in the Champions Classic, two of the most revered college coaches will square off in much different circumstances than their previous encounter.
“[Team USA] beat us by 100. I hope that’s not the result of this game,” Calipari said. “I think we were down 38 at half, and I was kind of waiting for the game to end and get out of there.”
Krzyzewski and Calipari have coached against each other just once as college coaches, when then-No. 1 Duke beat No. 11 Memphis 70-67 in a Nov. 2005 non-conference game.
But there have been many near misses over the years. When Kentucky lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, which the Blue Devils went on to win, Calipari’s top-seeded Wildcats fell one game short of a Final Four meeting with Duke.
“Do you know how badly we wanted to play Duke?” Calipari told the Birgmingham News in Sept. 2010. “I think that’s why we played so badly against West Virginia. We wanted Duke so badly we couldn’t see straight.”
The two teams were placed in the same region of last year’s NCAA Tournament, but the Blue Devils did not get to face the eventual champions after getting upset by 15-seed Lehigh in the round of 64. If the teams had met in the Elite Eight, it would have marked the 20-year anniversary of Duke’s 104-103 overtime victory against the Wildcats in the 1992 Elite Eight.
The final sequence of that game is now among the most memorable moments in college basketball history, with Grant Hill throwing the ball three-quarters of the way down the court to Christian Laettner, who nailed a turn-around jumper as time expired to send the Blue Devils to the Final Four and eventually their second consecutive national championship.
Although Kentucky leads 11-8 in its all-time series against Duke, Krzyzewski is 4-1 against the Wildcats.
Kentucky is coming off a season-opening 72-69 victory in which it was outrebounded 46-34 by Maryland, which held a 63-62 lead with less than six minutes to play. The Wildcats pulled it out in the end, led by a 19-point performance from sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. The rest of their leading contributors are part of the team’s heralded recruiting class, with Calipari saying he expects four freshmen to play at least 25 minutes each against Duke.
The team’s top recruit is a 6-foot-10 post player, Nerlens Noel, who scored just four points but recorded nine rebounds, three blocks and two steals against the Terrapins. Dealing with the athleticism of Noel and Kentucky’s other top freshmen, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein, will be an adjustment for the Blue Devils after their season-opening victory against Georgia State.
“[Kentucky is] a very talented and physically-gifted team that plays very hard. Offensively they’re very dangerous in transition,” Wojciechowski said. “We have to do a really good job of taking care of the ball and getting back in transition defense, trying to make them beat us with their half-court offense.”
Krzyzewski used just eight players in the team’s first game, excluding Alex Murphy from the floor after the redshirt freshman started both of the team’s preseason contests.
Murphy’s absence was called a coach’s decision, with no further specifics given.
“Alex has done a good job in the last couple days of practice and I’m sure he’ll be ready to play Tuesday night,” Wojciechowski said. “For us to be at our best, we’re going to need all of our players playing really well, certainly Alex has a lot of ability and can be a contributor to our team this year.”
Calipari said his young squad will have to contend with Duke’s ability to put power forwards on the perimeter with Mason Plumlee manning the post. The Wildcats were exposed in their opener by sophomore center Alex Len, who scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, both career highs.
Both Calipari and Wojciechowski stressed the importance of this game as an early-season test for measuring where their respective teams are. They also noted the game’s location, the Georgia Dome, a neutral site where both teams will have fans. The Georgia Dome will host the 2013 Final Four.
Like last year’s Final Four, Calipari is stocked with a collection of the nation’s most-heralded talents. And after seeing Krzyzewski harness the abilities of some of the world’s best players this summer, the intrigue between the two coaches has never been higher.
“Having a team like that and getting everybody to sacrifice—to know you’re supposed to win, and win anyway—what an achievement,” Calipari said. “What Mike has done for USA basketball and how he’s done it.... It was amazing.”