Believe it or not but Duke and Kentucky were once in the same conference, a long time ago and not for very long.
Duke joined the Southern Conference in 1928, four years before Kentucky left the league as one of the founding members of the Southeastern Conference.
Duke and Kentucky played three times during that period, Duke winning once.
The two teams didn’t square off again for two decades.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t have some conflict.
Eddie Cameron’s last Duke team was his best, 22-2 and a Southern Conference title, in 1942.
The NCAA Tournament was in its fourth year, an eight-team affair, no automatic qualifiers, teams selected based on geographic regions.
The Southern Conference and the SEC were in the same region.
Duke was approached by the NIT but thought their record gave them the edge over Kentucky’s 17-4 mark and declined the interest.
But Kentucky got the NCAA bid and Eddie Cameron lost his last and best chance to coach in the NCAAs.
Fast forward four decades and the rivalry hit another level and has at least simmered ever since.
But it didn’t start with Christian Laettner and Aminu Timberlake.
Duke and Kentucky have met 21 times. Kentucky won 10-of-the-first 12, including the 1978 NCAA title game.
But Duke has more than held its own since then. Bill Foster got a measure of revenge against Joe B. Hall, winning their last two match-ups, knocking the Wildcats out of the 1980 NCAA Tournament, that game held in Lexington, of all places.
Mike Krzyzewski has gone 5-2 against the Cats, bringing the mark to Kentucky 12, Duke 9.
Duke and Kentucky open their 2018-’19 season Tuesday night in Indianapolis. Duke co-captains Javin DeLaurier and Jack White addressed the media Friday, discussing that game.
The two have much different recollections of the Duke-Kentucky rivalry.
DeLaurier grew up in Virginia.
“I definitely think everyone sees this as a rivalry, because of who the schools are and their legacies. I definitely always liked Duke growing up. I always rooted for Duke.”
Jack White did not grow up in Virginia.
The Aussie says “I’ve definitely learned more about it since I got here. As far as Duke and Kentucky, I never had any idea of the extent of that rivalry. I now have a feel for the competitiveness and the nature of the rivalry.”
White says he’s seen bits and pieces of that famous 1992 match but not the entire thing.
The fans may feel the rivalry at a visceral level but none of these players were alive when Laettner wore Duke blue and they have other things on their minds.
“I don’t think we really try to feed into that,” DeLaurier says, of the rivalry. “We’re really excited to get the ball rolling. The guys have been working hard in practice, just trying to get better. We’re a really talented team but we’re young. We are prone to having some lapses in communication and what not. But we’ve really shown flashes of potential and we play hard. I think it’s a good way to see where we are. It’s fun. We’ve been looking forward to this ever since our non-conference schedule came out. At the same time, you don’t win championships in November. It’s nothing to be too high on or too low on. It’s just a learning experience.”
White is on the same page.
“It’s a big challenge and we’re looking forward to it and I think it will give us a good grasp of where we are. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to take care of what we can control, trying to get better individually and as a group. Fundamentals, talking, motion offense, trying to cover all the basic stuff that’s going to be important to us throughout the year.”
According to DeLaurier, Duke hasn’t even done any film work yet on Kentucky, ”just working on what we can do, things we can control. We’ve been focusing on us.”
You can see the theme here.
Still, there’s no question that both teams want to run and stop the other team from running.
DeLaurier says that starts with defense.
“Our transition defense has definitely improved. That’s been a point of emphasis for us. Defensively we have the potential to be really scary. If we can turn defense into offense, we’re so athletic and so fast, it’s going to be really hard to get in our way.”
DeLaurier also had the quote of the year, actually a quote he ascribed to one of the trainers, discussing freshman phenom Zion Williamson.
“You guys all won the genetic lottery. Zion won it twice.”
So, an exciting way to open the season, an opportunity to learn and grow. But just a first stop on a long journey.
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