Duke meets Kentucky tonight in Chicago in what is being billed as the season’s first meaningful game.
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It certainly means a lot to the Kentucky basketball nation, which has serious psychological issues with anything related to Duke basketball.
But how much should it mean to a Duke team that’s trying to blend four former role players and four freshmen into a national championship contender?
In my view, the outcome of the game is not so very important in terms of the big picture. A year ago, Duke suffered an embarrassing loss at N.C. State – how much does that mean in hindsight of a great season? In early December 2009, Duke went to Wisconsin early and got beaten. How’d that season turn out?
Still, although a Duke-Kentucky matchup in November is not a season-shaper, it ought to offer us a pretty good snapshot of where the two teams are today. It’s hard to imagine a better matchup – like Duke, Kentucky is trying to blend together a handful of returning role players and a collection of very talented freshmen.
The two key newcomers are Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray – a pair of foreign newcomers with very advanced skills.
Labissiere is a slender 6-11 post player from Haiti, who put his talent on display in Kentucky’s victory over the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He broke open a close game by scoring 26 points in 21 minutes, hitting 10 of 12 shots from the floor – on a night when the rest of the team hit 38.5 percent.
Murray, a 6-4 guard from Canada, is supposed to provide the outside firepower. He was hot in the opener against Albany (19 points on 8-of-15 shooting), but ice cold in the NJIT game, missing 10 of 13 shots, including nine of 10 3-point tries. But anyone who saw Murray outclass the best American prep seniors in last spring’s Hoop Summit understand how good he can be.
Duke fans can certainly understand a freshman having some up and down nights – we saw Brandon Ingram go 1-for-10 from 3 one night, then 4-of-6 the next.
Kentucky’s most consistent outside performance so far has come from an unexpected source – 6-9 junior Derek Willis barely played last season, but in Kentucky’s first two games this year, he’s scored 25 points and hit 5-of-9 3-pointers.
If Coach John Calipari has had an unpleasant surprise so far, it’s been sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis. Not that the 5-9 playmaker has been bad, but he hasn’t been anywhere close to expectations – some observers touted him as potentially the best point guard in college basketball this season.
Ulis shot well in the opener (4-of-9, 2-of-5 3-pointers), but had five turnovers and just two assists. His distributed the ball better in the second game (five assists and just one turnover), but his shooting slipped (1-of-8, 0-of-2 3 pointers).
Ulis will need to be better than that if Kentucky has a chance to beat Duke. Of course, he showed last season that he can be MUCH better than he’s been so far.
Calipari has a number of other potential weapons – from veteran forward Alex Poythress to freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe. And junior big man Marcus Lee is a probable first-round NBA draft pick.
Kentucky is certainly a legitimate Final Four threat, but these ‘Cats will be much, much more formidable in March than they will be tonight. Of course, so will this Duke team.
Now, if I were writing for a Kentucky website, I’d have a totally different perspective on the game.
It’d hard to underestimate the hatred and jealousy that Duke inspires in the Big Blue Nation. Obviously, the 1992 East Regional game – and the infamous Christian Laettner "stomp" -- is the flashpoint for the bitterness, but it’s more than that.
Kentucky fans have historically viewed their program as the best in college basketball … and, if you look at the entire history of the game, that’s a very valid view. But Duke, not Kentucky, has been the premier program of the modern era (defined as the NCAA’s 64-team tournament period, which started in 1985).
That galls the Wildcat faithful.
The head-to-head matchups also spur the hatred. Kentucky leads the all-time rivalry 11-9, but the Blue Devils have won seven of the last eight meetings. Mike Krzyzewski is 5-1 against the ‘Cats and more significantly has stolen their recruiting thunder in recent years. Twice in the last six years, Kentucky has seen Duke win national championships in years when the Wildcats were believed to be the best team.
That hurts too.
So in many ways, tonight’s matchup is much like the old Duke-Maryland series … the game is important to the Duke fan base … but it’s life or death to the state of Kentucky.
But win or lose, both teams will keep building and keep their focus on March.
If Duke and Kentucky meet in postseason, THEN it will be a meaningful game.
SCOPING OUT THE TAR HEELS
I’ve never understood the stampede to pick North Carolina as the nation’s preseason No. 1 team. After all, this is basically the same team that lost 12 games a year ago, finished fifth in the ACC and was ranked No. 17 in the final AP poll. They lost their best defender and didn’t add anybody of significance.
Okay, I understand the rationale of the UNC boosters, who believe that a lot of young players who were mediocre to poor last season will suddenly be game-changers this season. Obviously, that’s possible – but you could say the same thing for a lot of other teams out there too.
I wanted to watch UNC’s early games to see how many of those optimistic player predictions are coming true. I understand that the Tar Heels are playing without their best player, Marcus Paige, but that should actually give those blossoming stars more room for development.
But what I’ve seen so far has been a mixed bag:
-- Justin Jackson was the highest rated 2014 national recruit to stay in school. Jackson’s admirers suggest that he’s a potential All-American this year. Maybe, but his first two games were pretty much the same so-so player we saw last year. He scored 15 points in the two games, hitting 7-of-16 from the floor. But he was 0-for-6 from 3-point range, 1-of-5 from the foul line and more surprisingly had just two rebounds in 48 minutes of action.
It still could happen, but so far, Jackson has not stepped up.
-- Theo Pinson, another top 2014 recruit who had a disastrous freshman season – he was hurt midseason, but he wasn’t playing very well before the injury. He has started both UNC games in Paige’s place and has played 30 minutes in those two games. His stats are curious. He hasn’t scored much 18 points on 4-of-11 shooting, but he has hit 3-of-6 3s. He also had a nine-round game against Temple. In that game he had five assists and four turnovers, then followed that up with eight assists and no turnovers against Fairfield.
There is clearly something there – could Pinson, always projected as a wing player, turn into the distributor UNC needs (something that neither Britt nor Berry is especially good at)?
-- Kennedy Meeks is slimmer and seems to have more stamina. He had a terrific opening game against Temple (25 points, 11 rebounds in 28 minutes on 10-of-14 shooting). He was a little less effective against Fairfield’s tighter zone, but still had eight points and 12 rebounds,.
I would say a promising start for the junior big man.
-- Joel Berry, another soph with a lot of promise. He leads the team with 61 minutes played in the first two games. He’s had one good shooting game (against Temple) and one terrible shooting game (6-of-16) against Fairfield. More disturbingly, UNC’s reputed point guard passed out four assists, but had three turnovers in both games.
Not sure what his role will be going forward, especially after Paige returns. A year ago, he didn’t pass out many assists (less than two a game), but he didn’t turn the ball over much either.
-- Nate Britt is the one UNC player who has clearly elevated his game – at least, based on the first two games. He’s averaged 26 minutes a game off the bench and has been a deadly shooting, hitting 11-of-17 shots, including 7-of-10 3 pointers. He’s also passed our six assists with just two turnovers in the two games – pretty good for a kid who had almost a 1/1 assist/turnover ratio in ACC play last season.
If he keeps this up, he will be a significant upgrade on the Nate Britt we saw a year ago.
The rest of the roster is pretty much as we expected it. Brice Johnson is a very good offensive power forward. The two freshmen have made little contribution in little playing time. Isaiah Hicks has been solid in limited playing time. Joel James remains a big body without a lot of skills.
So, am I wrong about UNC or was the mistake by the many optimists who pick them No. 1?
I would argue that it’s far too early to make that determination. One of the keys to the projections is the supposition that Paige will play at an ACC player of the year level (something he did for about six weeks in 2014, but not during an injury plagued 2015). We’ll have to see how that works out.
But, if we base our evaluation of two games (which is ridiculous), then I’d have to give Meeks and Britt positive grades and Jackson a negative grade. I don’t know what to make of Pinson’s play – there are some hints of excellence (especially the playmaking), but I’m not ready to anoint him as the player he was projected to be out of high school.
It’s interesting to watch this team develop.
THE ACC’S FIRST WEEKEND
Not a lot of tough tests for the ACC’s first weekend, but two teams failed anyway.
N.C. State lost its opener to a very experienced William & Mary team. The Tribe returns four starters off a team that won the Colonial regular season a year ago. The one graduation loss was a big one – point guard Marcus Thornton was a second-round pick by the Boston Celtics.
N.C. State’s loss was bad enough, but the manner of the defeat was even worse – the Pack fell behind 23-5 and never got the margin under 10 points again, losing by 17. Worse, transfer guard Terry Henderson was lost for six-to-eight weeks with an ankle injury.
That’s devastating to a team that was already thin on the perimeter.
As bad as it was, it’s hardly a season killer for N.C. State. Mark Gottfried’s teams are notoriously slow starters, but they have always rallied to make the NCAA field. A year ago, the Pack lost at home to Wofford, yet rallied to earn a No. 8 seed and reach the NCAA Sweet 16.
The next month or so will be interesting as Goffried tries to repair the damage. Sunday night’s bounce-back win over South Alabama was a decent start. Early Thanksgiving week, the Wolfpack travels to New York where N.C. State will face Arizona State in the semifinals of the Legends Classic in the Barclay Center. That’s a game they could win against Bobby Hurley’s rebuilding team. A win could set up a rematch with LSU – the team State edged in last year’s NCAA opener.
No such bright prospects for the ACC’s other loser.
It’s always a disaster when an ACC team loses to a SWAC opponent – that’s one of the weakest basketball conferences in the nation. And Alabama State is not really expected to be a favorite in the SWAC.
One bright spot for the Hokies was the play of transfer Zack LeDay, a 6-7 forward who started his career at South Florida. He had 26 points and 15 rebounds in 35 minutes of action. And he got some nice help inside from 6-8, 235-pound freshman Kerry Blackshear, who came off the bench to contribute seven points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes.
But the problem for Virginia Tech was the play of its guards – expected to be the strength of the young team. Maryland transfer Seth Allen was terrible – 13 points on 2-of-9 shooting, four assists and four turnovers. Talented sophomores Justin Bibb and Jalen Hudson scored a combined 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting.
Virginia Tech did play without veteran point guard Devin Wilson, who is nursing a groin pull. Worse, sophomore guard Ahmed Hill, who averaged 8.7 points a game as a freshman, has a knee injury and will be out a long time – he may redshirt.
The season outlook for the Hokies is not nearly as promising as for N.C. State.
As for the rest of the league, almost everybody else coasted against out-classed competition.
Florida State showed off the talent of its freshman class against Nichols State. Louisville’s newcomers blitzed Samford, although highly touted fifth-year senior transfers Damien Lee and Trey Lewis (1-of-8 shooting) weren’t as good as Rick Pitino’s freshmen, especially guard Donovan Mitchell (14 points and three steals in 17 minutes action).
Perhaps the most notable game was the one that didn’t finish. Pitt turned in an impressive first half against Gonzaga in Okinawa before the game was cancelled due to a slippery floor.
Perhaps the conditions made the half that was played misleading, but it’s still impressive that a Pitt team projected to finish 10th in the ACC was ahead of a Gonzaga team that was projected No. 8 in the nation.
In one sense, the Zags were a good matchup for Pitt, which is one of the biggest, strongest and oldest teams in the ACC this year. Gonzaga’s strength is its frontcourt – its guards are new. We’ll have to see how Pitt looks when they face a team with the kind of perimeter quickness they see almost every night in the ACC.
We’ll have to see a lot. The first weekend did not tell us much.
I just keep saying – it’s going to be fun to watch it all play out.