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Three points: Interior presence, chemistry could be the difference for Duke men's basketball against Kentucky

Duke's size and strength in the paint could prove useful against Kentucky.
Duke's size and strength in the paint could prove useful against Kentucky.

With Duke's long-awaited season opener against Kentucky almost here, the Blue Zone brings you three keys to a Blue Devil victory at Madison Square Garden:

Dominating the interior

Duke has one of the most physically talented frontcourts in the country with 6-foot-10 Paolo Banchero and seven-foot Mark Williams, meaning it will be hard to find a tandem that can keep up with their size in the paint. Although Kentucky added West Virginia transfer forward Oscar Tshiebwe, its tallest player is still just six-foot-nine. As such, the Wildcats likely will not have a body that can control the post when the Blue Devils’ starters are in, so Banchero and Williams should make sure to capitalize on their advantage. Instead of hanging around the perimeter or settling for jump shots, the duo should take it hard to the rack consistently and force the Wildcats to match their physicality.

Defensively, Duke can exploit one of Kentucky’s biggest weaknesses from last season, which was finishing at the rim. In the 2020-21 season, just 30.7% of the Wildcat’s shots were at the rim and just 59.4% of those shots were made. Kentucky likely touched upon this in the offseason and should not struggle nearly as much, but such issues are not reversed at the snap of a finger and tend to linger at least a bit from year to year. With two defensive forces starting in the paint and a third in transfer Theo John coming off the bench, Duke has the potential to exacerbate this weakness.

Balanced offense

Speaking of weaknesses, one of Duke’s shortcomings last season was an unbalanced offense. The Blue Devils were over-reliant on Matthew Hurt, who accounted for over 24% of their points scored. Besides Jalen Johnson, who only played 13 out of 24 games, Hurt was the only player to shoot over 35% from three. 

The Blue Devils should have more deep threats and scoring options ahead of their 2021-22 season opener. Although they lost their top two scorers in Hurt and DJ Steward, freshmen Paolo Banchero, Trevor Keels and AJ Griffin all look to be major scoring threats should their offensive abilities translate well to the collegiate level. Wendell Moore Jr., Jeremy Roach and Williams all showed flashes of being able to light it up last year and need to prove that they can take that next step forward by showing consistency. Duke should not expect to replicate its spectacular offensive display against Kentucky from the 2018-19 season opener, but the Blue Devils do need to show that this Wildcats team, as well as all other future opponents, won’t be able to focus on just a few players.

Chemistry

No matter how talented a team is, it is always important that no individual puts themself before the team. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has won five national championships and coached 67 NBA draft picks, knows better than anyone what is best for his team and how to maximize elite talent. To reach the ultimate goal of hoisting a sixth banner, each and every player has to buy into that. 

They may not get as many shots as they want, as many minutes as they feel they deserve and they may not even always start, but every player has to embrace their role for this team to be successful. It all starts with Tuesday's matchup against Kentucky, as every individual’s attitude will set the tone for the rest of the season. Outstanding chemistry has been a key variable that every one of Krzyzewski's championship teams has had in common and for this squad to be the sixth, it starts with having that positive energy in the opener.

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