The time for preseason hype is over.
Duke may face its toughest challenge of the regular season in its first game of nonconference play, and the match is slated to be a trial by fire for the Blue Devil freshmen.
No. 4 Duke will take on No. 2 Kentucky Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis at 9:30 p.m as the second game of the Champions Classic doubleheader. Although the Blue Devils boast the top recruiting class of 2018, the Wildcats have both relative experience and top-tier talent, making this matchup arguably Duke's toughest of the year.
"To start off the season like this is a big challenge, as it is for [Kentucky]," junior captain Jack White said. "As a group we're looking forward to that challenge and that stage to kick our season off. It will give us a good grasp of where we're at at that level."
The biggest edge Kentucky brings against the Blue Devils is experience, especially with the Blue Devils sporting a completely new starting lineup from last year.
Not only do the Wildcats boast two high-profile returners in P.J. Washington and Nick Richards—both whom started all 37 games last season—Kentucky will also get contributions from former Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis. Sitting at 6-foot-8 with a 238 pound frame, Travis is built like a brick and has the athleticism to bully anyone in the paint. In his final year in California, the Minneapolis native averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game—good for the third best in the Pac-12.
Travis brings a dangerous mix of talent and experience that can dominate the Blue Devils in the post. With Washington and freshman Keldon Johnson running lanes up to the basket and Richards holding down the low post, Duke will have a hard time keeping Kentucky at bay if its big men are caught off guard.
"We're a really talented team, but we are young and we are prone to having lapses of communication," Duke junior captain Javin DeLaurier said. "We've really shown flashes of potential which is good to see. We play really hard, which is something you want to see in a young team."
However, both teams have shown key weaknesses that could decide the outcome of Tuesday's matchup.
Both teams struggled from the perimeter this preseason, albeit to a lesser extent Duke. Through preseason exhibitions against Transylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the Wildcats were 10-for-35 from downtown—five of which came from freshman Tyler Herro. Due to Herro's streakiness—all five of his treys came against Indiana while he bricked four against Transylvania—Kentucky could find itself struggling to make anything happen from beyond the arc against a lengthy team like Duke. Although the Blue Devils converted 46 percent of its 3-point attempts during preseason play, Duke has yet to find a consistent go-to shooter and could find itself in dire straights if its shots don't fall.
Another aspect of play both teams will need to reconcile is how they will handle the defensive end. It's no question both teams know how to get buckets—the question is who will be able to consistently get stops. Although on paper the Wildcats' experience gives them an edge defensively, Kentucky struggled to contain Transylvania, especially in closing off driving lanes. Against a Blue Devil squad with the likes of R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson who thrive at cutting through the paint, that won't cut it.
"Sometimes you can do all the right things and [Zion] will jump right over you and finish your contact," White said. "He's an incredible talent and he's too tough to stop."
Duke will be struggling to teach their four freshman starters effective man-to-man defense at the pace of college play. Although signs have been promising with impressive performances from Tre Jones and Williamson, it's a tall order to expect all to go well against one of the toughest offensive teams in the nation to start the season.
For the Blue Devils, Tuesdays game will be an important reminder to the freshmen that preseason hype doesn't amount to much. To come away with title No. 6, Duke will need to bring its A-game against many more Kentucky's down the road.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.