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Next Up - Kentucky

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November 13 seems incredibly early for a Duke-Kentucky tussle, but that's sort of the point of the State Farm Champions Classic: getting the season started with a bang.

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It's undeniable that the college basketball season is unwieldy: the first couple of months are full of pathetic money games which see matchups between powerful teams and lower tier programs which need the money a good whipping in a big gym provides.

Then it's exams and Christmas break, with more weak matchups, then into conference play.

Only that doesn't mean what it used to, and so everyone gets worked up about the tournament. On ESPN, they start analyzing the next year's tournament as soon as the current one concludes, which is really stupid because you don't even know who the coaches and players are, much less the injuries.

But that's the world we're in, and we're in it because the rest of the season is kind of dull. There was a time when a game like UCLA-Houston or Virginia-Houston or Duke-Michigan would have people talking all summer.

Not so much the case anymore, which is why the better minds in the game are trying to come up with something.

This, incidentally, is part of the reason why we've been saying for a long time that the Big Four and/or the ACC should sponsor a tournament either at the beginning of the year  or mid-season. We had pushed for a revived Dixie Classic (the Winn-Dixie Classic until the grocery chain went bankrupt) or perhaps a meeting of the most highly regarded ACC teams in a mini-tournament, which would have people talking for the rest of the year: sure, Maryland won the warm-up tourney, but (insert your team here) has been hotter later and is bound to win the ACC.

It'd be unique, highly profitable, dynamite TV - and it'll never happen. Coaches are too conservative to try it.

So now we get things like the State Farm Champions Classic and games on aircraft carriers. Good ideas both, but not enough to change things. But steps in the right direction.

And getting Duke and Kentucky together is also going to get huge ratings, thanks largely to the competitive brilliance of Christian Laettner, who pushed the rivalry into a different orbit. He left Kentucky fans feeling cheated of the greatest victory in program history, and worse, they feel he should have been kicked out after putting his foot on Aminu Timberlake's stomach (to be clear, anyone who watches the video can tell it's not at all a stomp, because a stomp by a guy who's 6-11 and 230 would seriously injure just about anyone. That said, it remains a very stupid thing to have done).

This year's matchup is a bit different, as John Calipari  has taken Kentucky into a completely different place. He has recruited at an extraordinary level and has kept his best players, typically, for just a year before they apply for the draft. Things may have peaked out last year as he had two extraordinary players in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Davis is an immensely promising young big man, currently with the Hornets,while Kidd-Gilchrist defined competitive last year in college basketball. He was brilliant.

Last year, though, as has become typical at Calipari's Kentucky, Davis was picked first in the draft, Kidd-Gilchrist second, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague were all taken in the first round, while Doron Lamb and Darius Miller went in the second.

This year, they bring in rookies Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel, as well as State refugees Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow.

Among their returnees are Kyle Wiltjer, a likely draft pick this summer, Jon Hood, a junior, a senior, Twany Beckham, and some guys who haven't been prominent, including Sam Malone (insert Cheers joke here), Brian Long, and Jarod Polson.

Polson was unknown before he came off the bench to seriously hurt Maryland, but as several people pointed out, he's been playing against elite talent in practice for some time now, so his solid performance isn't really out of the blue.

Wiltjer is 6-10, while Noels and Cauley-Stein, both skilled shotblockers, are 6-10 and 7-0 respectively.

Poythress is 6-7 and athletic (big surprise).

Kentucky may have some issues in the backcourt. Goodwin is going to be good, but Mays is a good-not-great athlete. Harrow is extraordinary quick, but in the Maryland game, suffering from the flu, he only played 10 minutes and may not play in Atlanta. May was hit in the eye and his status is also uncertain.

Kentucky's question, it seems to us, is who is going to score: Wiltjer is a skilled scorer (and at least the third great player out of Oregon recently behind Kyle Singler and Kevin Love) who got 19 against Maryland. Goodwin managed 16 but the next leading scorer was Polson, and people are on to him now. He won't get many easy shots from here on in.

Against Maryland, Wiltjer was 6-9, Polson was 4-5 and Cauley-Stein was 3-6.

Otherwise, Noel was 2-6, Harrow 0-4, Mays 3-10, Goodwin 3-8 (but 9-11 from the line) and Poythress 3-8.

Part of that may have just been rookie nerves in a big game, but it's not great shooting. And keep in mind Maryland was just a three point shot away from putting the game in overtime despite shooting just 33.3% for the game.

For Duke's part, there's a great deal that's still unsettled, not that that's a big surprise in game #2.

It seems certain that Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly will start, and Seth Curry if he's up to it. Coach K is a long ways from settling his lineup, and against Georgia State, Tyler Thornton took Quinn Cook's starting spot while Rasheed Sulaimon started and Alex Murphy didn't get off the bench.

Amile Jefferson is proving a pleasant surprise thus far, so don't be surprised to see him get some meaningful minutes early.

Duke shot reasonably well against the Panthers, but they would profit mightily if some keen chemistry would emerge between Cook and Plumlee.

Kentucky has an unquestionable advantage athletically, but we would remind you of the MSG game a few years ago (2005) between Duke and Memphis, then coached by Calipari. Memphis had similar advantages, but Duke pulled out a 70-67 win. Can the Devils do it again?

We'll find out Tuesday night.


In our column on Duke-Kentucky games in the past, we neglected to mention one of the finest Duke victories: beating Kentucky, in Rupp, in the 1980 tournament. 1992 aside, it doesn't get much better than that.