It may only be November and the second game of the year, but Duke’s tilt with perennial college basketball powerhouse Kentucky promises to be one of its stiffest tests of the year and will likely feel like a Final Four game.
The No. 8 Blue Devils and No. 3 Wildcats will play each other in the Champions Classic tonight at 9:30 p.m. at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
“We want to be a team that’s able to go forward in the NCAA Tournament and you have to play outstanding teams on neutral sites,” Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “And if you’re fortunate enough to get that far you’re going to be playing in a dome.”
After losing four first-round NBA draft picks from last year’s national championship team, Kentucky head coach John Calipari has reloaded with another top recruiting class. Freshmen Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Will Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress join sophomore Kyle Wiltjer and N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow to help the Wildcats defend their national title.
“We’re an attacking kind of team,” Calipari said. “There are so many things to work on because we’re freshmen, so that makes it hard.”
Despite inexperience and a revamped roster, Kentucky presents a daunting challenge with a roster filled with NBA-caliber talent, size and athleticism. “Offensively they’re very dangerous in transition. They turn turnovers into points as well as anyone we’ll play this year,” 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.”
According to Dick Vitale’s Twitter account, Calipari will be without starting point guard Ryan Harrow, who has been battling an illness dating back to last week. Julius Mays—a 6-foot-2 reserve shooting guard—practiced with the team on Monday after suffering an eye injury against Maryland and is expected to play.
In Harrow’s absence, the Wildcats will turn to former walk-on Jarrod Polson to man the point guard position. With Harrow unable to play extended minutes last week, Polson made the most of his first opportunity on a big stage in the team’s opening game against Maryland. The 6-foot-2 junior made clutch plays down the stretch and finished with 10 points to help his team escape with a 72-69 win.
Kentucky’s other two go-to-guys on the offensive end against the Terrapins were Wiltjer and Goodwin, who finished with 19 and 16 points, respectively. Wiltjer is a skilled, face-up big man who can stretch defenses with his shooting ability. Goodwin is an aggressive 6-foot-4 guard who loves to attack the rim and possesses a competent stroke from 3-point range.
One of the interesting matchups of the night will be the small forward battle—Alex Murphy against former Blue Devil target Alex Poythress. With a sculpted 6-foot-8 physique, Poythress rebounds at a high level for a small forward and is more than capable of scoring in bunches. Even though he has not logged minutes in a real game yet in his career, Murphy will need to play and play well for Duke to counter the Wildcats’ size and versatility.
“We look at all of our guys as guys who can play,” Wojciechowski said. “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.”
In the Wildcats’ contest against the Terrapins, Kentucky’s youthful frontcourt was exposed against a physical stable of Maryland big men. Noel—a 6-foot-10 shot-blocking specialist—and 7-foot Cauley-Stein struggled to slow down Maryland center Alex Len, who finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds.
“At times in the second half we looked like a freshman team, which is what we are,” Calipari said. “Maryland’s size hurt us, their physical play hurt us.”
Duke will likely follow Maryland’s lead by feeding its preseason first-team All-ACC selection Mason Plumlee in the post. The 6-foot-10 senior is coming off an impressive 19-point and 14-rebound performance against Georgia State.
“I think Plumlee has gotten so much better,” Calipari said. “He can run the floor, he fights the post, he guards the guy before he catches it.”
Shooting a woeful 3-for-19 from distance, the Terrapins would have likely knocked off the defending champs had they been able to shoot a higher percentage from 3-point range. Calipari realizes that the Wildcats will likely not have that same fortune against a Duke team that has lethal shooters like senior Seth Curry and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon.
“Maryland did not make shots that Duke will make,” Calipari said. “If [the Blue Devils] come out and make 20-of-25 [3-pointers], we’re done. We’ll tap them on the butt and go home.”
Playing in what promises to be an electric atmosphere at the future site of the 2013 Final Four against top-flight talent this early should pay dividends down the road for Duke as it tries to establish its identity.
“They’re a great measuring stick,” Wojciechowski said. “Guys come to Duke to play in big games. These are the type of games that our players want to play in. From a practical standpoint, in addition to that, it gives us a better feel of where we’re at as a team and what we need to do to continue to get better.”