Here. We. Go.
Mark your calendars; Tuesday’s blue blood clash in the Big Apple promises to be a spicy one full of top-class players, coaches and atmosphere.
Basketball is back, and with it comes an exciting opening day between two giants of the game. It’s No. 9 Duke against No. 10 Kentucky, Mike Krzyzewski versus John Calipari. As the Blue Devils prepare themselves for a trial by fire following an exhibition-game blowout win against Winston-Salem State, there are plenty of storylines to follow and plenty of star names to watch. Without further delay, here are five things to look for as Duke takes on Kentucky in Madison Square Garden this Tuesday.
Pastures of old
In the bizarre basketball landscape of 2020-21 that saw Baylor win its first-ever national championship and No. 11 UCLA make a Cinderella run to the Final Four, many traditional powerhouses had relative down seasons, including North Carolina, Virginia and, as relevant here, Duke and Kentucky. The Blue Devils finished 13-11 and 10th in the ACC, while the Wildcats suffered one of only two losing seasons since the Great Depression with an overall record of 9-16 and an eighth place finish in the SEC.
Many people closely involved with NCAA basketball are not projecting this year to be a similar story for either program and expect both to come out firing, fit with killer recruiting classes, impressive veterans and top-class coaching staffs. Duke, as always (and for the final time), has Krzyzewski on its sideline alongside coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer, associate head coach Chris Carrawell and assistant coach Nolan Smith, while Kentucky boasts John Calipari and two new coaching transfers in Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman from the 2020-21 Illinois staff. Both programs have landed five-star recruiting classes and added experienced transfers like Marquette’s Theo John (Duke) and Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler (Kentucky), so there’s no reason to believe this season, and this game, won’t be a return to something closer to the status quo. Tuesday’s showdown won’t be between two teams that are struggling, but a clash between titans eager and able to reassert themselves at the very top of the NCAA pyramid.
If there’s one thing both Duke and Kentucky have been really good at in recent years, it’s recruiting. The Blue Devils come stocked with projected lottery picks Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin, as well as freshman guards Trevor Keels and Jaylen Blakes. The Wildcats enter this year with a similarly impressive class including the likes of five-star prospects Tyty Washington Jr. and Daimion Collins. Both programs have an enviable depth of freshman talent and Tuesday may prove to be the first real look we get at these players and what they can offer their respective teams.
“All of us are excited to play, but reminding the guys that it’s still basketball and that doesn’t change. [My goal is] keeping everybody cool and composed," Duke senior captain Joey Baker said of how he's helping prepare the freshman. "I think our guys have really good heads on their shoulders and are prepared for the spotlight, so we’re in a good spot. But however I can help, just getting them comfortable, doing whatever I can.”
On Duke’s end, seemingly everyone knows Banchero and expects him to light up the NCAA, but the Blue Devils’ other recruits have more than enough talent to win games and do so convincingly. Kentucky, perhaps to a lesser extent, is in a similar position. With a Wildcat program renowned for taking high-profile freshmen and turning them into NBA-ready superstars within a year (case in point Anthony Davis), Calipari knows how to manage youngsters. Madison Square Garden is the first arena for these starlets to emerge, so keep a special eye out for the fierce freshmen both programs boast.
In conjunction with elite recruiting classes comes the departure of last year’s roster, and both teams have new looks. Roster turnover isn’t just a bone of contention across college sports—for these two teams it’s a yearly occurrence.
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“It’s really tough because obviously, we don’t know what [Kentucky does] as a team yet,” Duke junior Wendell Moore Jr. said. “We’ve watched a couple of their exhibitions just like they have with us, so really this being both teams’ first game against an opponent is going to be kind of a tougher scout because we don’t know what they’re going to do. We can know their personnel from what they’ve shown at other schools, but really this is their first time playing together as a team too.”
Exhibition or training games are one thing, but the big stage is another. Madison Square Garden is playing host to both teams’ first real chance at showing their mettle, so expect a bit of rust and less fluidity than we’d normally anticipate. These are both young, talented, dynamic sides that are still trying to figure themselves out, and Tuesday is just as much about the result as it is creating a team identity.
The Banchero show
As seemingly the whole world knows at this point, Paolo Banchero is really good at basketball. The Seattle, Wash., native dropped 21 points and a highlight-reel worthy performance against Winston-Salem State and has all the makings of a superstar. He excites crowds with his ludicrous jumps, powerful slam-dunks and hunger for the ball, making him one of the NCAA’s players to watch for.
ESPN analyst Myron Medcalf summarized Banchero in a way many would agree with: “Maybe [he’s] the difference this season—that despite the talent pools at Kansas and Gonzaga or the depth at Texas, that none of it will matter this season because Duke has Paolo and you don't.”
Maybe it’s low-hanging fruit to suggest Banchero is one to watch or that he’s exciting, but it’s true. All eyes will be on how the young superstar performs against Kentucky, just as they were for the Winston-Salem State game, Countdown to Craziness and his high school senior year. Banchero alone has the talent and ability to win games for the Blue Devils, and whether or not that’s the case Tuesday we’ll have to wait and see. Either way, he’s the poster boy of this blockbuster contest and his performance will no doubt have a huge impact on the result.
“It’s New York City,” Baker said. “It’s the buzz in the arena. It’s been a while since we’ve played in front of a packed house like that, so I can’t even describe how excited myself and the rest of the team is to play there on Tuesday. It’s a special place.”
For the majority of the players on the court for both Duke and Kentucky on Tuesday, this will be their first experience of competitive basketball with fans in attendance. Madison Square Garden is a grand venue for a season-opener and the authentic crowd noise will be a welcome addition for players and fans alike. No amount of pumped-in cheers can supplement the excited yelling of die-hard fans or the pestering antics of the crowd trying to disrupt a free throw—Tuesday will have all of this in earnest.
“I think part of playing in those big games, especially in the past, is how much louder it is than anything they’ve experienced,” Baker said. “Jeremy [Roach] and Mark [Williams] never really got to experience a sold out arena or anything like that—our freshmen as well. So, making sure they know it’s going to be packed, it’s going to be loud and rowdy and we can’t let that shake us. We have to stay together and up our communication and play basketball. Just making sure they’re aware it’s going to be loud in there. They’re big time basketball players, so they’ll be ready to go.”