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First Up: Duke-Kentucky

Blue Devils and Wildcats will renew pleasantries Tuesday night.

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Duke University Blue Devils
Why Laettner? Because Duke still has bragging rights over Kentucky

For people like us - and by that we mean Duke and Kentucky fans and everyone else who thinks college basketball might as well start in August or so - it’s about damn time and Tuesday can’t come soon enough.

For Duke and Kentucky this game is a bit of a reversal. Duke has had more experience lately (think Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee, Matt Jones, Grayson Allen and other upperclassmen who could balance the younger guys) while UK has had the big freshmen classes and minimal experienced players to turn to.

This year, Kentucky has an outstanding freshman class again with 6-3 Ashton Hagans, 6-6 Keldon Johnson, 6-3 Immanuel Quickley, 6-5 Tyler Herro, 6-4 Zan Payne and 6-10 EJ Montgomery.

But atypically in the age of John Calipari’s one-and-done, he has sophomores Quade Green (6-0), Nick Richards (6-11) and PJ Washington (6-8) back.

Reid Travis is also onboard as a grad student transfer from Stanford. He’s 6-8 and 240 and physically mature. He’s old enough to be an oddity for Calipari, who has at times seemed to push players out whether they wanted to go or not (one player’s mother complained that a press release was ready before her son had decided whether to stay at Kentucky or leave for the NBA).

It’s not quite like Duke’s 2015 team which had senior Quinn Cook, fourth-year junior Marshall Plumlee, junior Amile Jefferson and Sean Obi, who didn’t play much due to injuries but was a third-year transfer from Rice.

Semi Ojeleye was a December transfer while Rasheed Sulaimon, who was a junior, was dismissed in January.

Duke started the season with a lot of experienced players and ended with four plus an ace up Mike Krzyzewski’s sleeve in Grayson Allen, who erupted in the championship game against Wisconsin and ultimately became a first round draft pick as a senior.

Kentucky has three sophomores and a grad transfer. Is it the same thing?

In the modern game, it’s close enough.

Thing is, for all the focus on Duke’s freshmen, which is understandable, it’s not like Duke lacks experience.

The Blue Devils return eight players from last year. Not all of them are going to play a lot but all of them know the practice routines and how to run the stations and drills and so forth. Walk-on Brennan Besser won't play Tuesday but he’s been teaching Tre Jones a lot about how to do things the Duke way.

The guys who are likely to play a lot - meaning experienced guys - are Javin DeLaurier, Jack White, Marques Bolden and Alex O’ Connell - all obviously know the system well too and Justin Robinson has become a much better reserve than people realize (and a big influence on his team behind the scenes).

The same goes for Jordan Goldwire and Antonio Vrankovic. Odds are they won’t play Tuesday but they’ve helped teach the younger guys what to do.

Like Besser, Mike Buckmire is a walk-on but he’s a fairly talented walk-on. Again, he won’t play Tuesday night unless something very surprising happens, but he’s had his say in practice and with his younger teammates off the court.

We don’t mean to suggest that Kentucky doesn’t have those kinds of guys too; we’re sure the Wildcats do, probably Brad Calipari in particular. The coach’s boy knows exactly what his dad wants and is probably a great conduit between coach and team.

We don't know a lot about Kentucky though so we’ll leave that to others. We do know Duke well enough to know that there are a lot of guys back to pass on the program’s DNA to the five freshmen. We have a sense of how the program is organized and we’re here to tell you that all of the returnees are important and respected. They probably won’t play but they’ll have a major impact.

Four of the freshmen will play a lot of course: RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones are going to start.

All of them will be important and all of them are stepping on to the big stage for the first time. How will they handle it?

Good question and while the team may have a pretty good idea, most of us will have to wait and project based on what we’ve seen so far against markedly inferior competition. No offense to Ryerson, Toronto, McGill, Virginia Union or Ferris State, but none of them were a serious challenge for Duke. All of them were on TV and the Canadian games were packed, but this game will be against not just Kentucky but also the Big Blue Nation. Those people go to Hawaii without tickets so they’re going to show up in Indy and do whatever they have to do to get in Tuesday. You can reasonably expect a pro-Kentucky crowd, and you can expect most Michigan State and Kansas fans to join them.

Bankers Life Fieldhouse seats 20,000 and Duke’s four freshmen are going to have about 15,000 pulling against them. It’s a rough way to start. Fortunately for Duke, it’s not, even by recent standards, a typical freshman class.

We’re not as sure about Reddish yet, but we expect Barrett, Williamson and Jones to essentially be sophomores. The bright lights won’t bother them too much. All three are ahead of the curve and Reddish may be as well. We’re not referring to talent here. We’re talking about being able to handle Kentucky, BBN, a huge, hostile crowd - the whole business.

Kentucky’s experience advantage is probably a little overblown but not its size. Between Richardson, Reid and Montgomery, UK has a rough analogy to Duke’s inside game last year. Those guys probably aren’t as good as Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter, but Duke may have a tough time matching up with them.

In his exhibition games, like most coaches, Calipari has played with his roster extensively and we’re not sure yet who he’ll start but clearly he has more big guys. Duke really needs a solid game from both DeLaurier and Bolden and both need to avoid foul trouble.

However, mismatches go both ways and someone has to guard Barrett, Reddish and Williamson and for his part, Williamson can certainly guard 1-4 and probably 5 as well, at least in some situations. His strength and leaping ability allow him to do things that most players can’t.

We’ve gotten a taste already of the hype that’s going to follow him all season. It’s going to be intense - Kentucky’s Herro has already alluded to being sick of it - but Duke could use it to its advantage.

It sounds ridiculous but the hype around him is so big that people may be underestimating Barrett. You can focus on Zion’s talent and that’s understandable. Overlook Barrett though and you have a problem because that guy is a basketball assassin. More importantly, he and Williamson have already demonstrated a nice chemistry and as we’ve said several times now, Williamson, Barrett and Reddish are all outstanding passers.

Barrett is capable of taking over a game and that includes his first game. He could also finish with 11. We’ll just have to see.

In Duke’s system, the most important player is the point guard. That’s slightly different this year since the other starting freshmen are so skilled but we’re guessing that Coach K has done one of his little ceremonies and made it clear to everyone that Jones is the guy who has the keys.

He’ll be driving the bus and making sure everyone stays happy. He’s a hard-nosed defender and has experience and knowledge he’s gained from brother Tyus, who has spent as much time as possible tutoring Tre. That’s a huge advantage because Tyus is a near genius point guard. Tre should be ready.

As fans we tend to see these athletes as uncomplicated guys playing a game and don’t realize that there are many other factors. For Reddish and Calipari, there’s a relationship as Cal coached him for USA Basketball (U-19) and recruited him hard to Lexington as the model for positionless basketball.

He lost out to Duke of course, as he did for Brandon Ingram, Marvin Bagley, Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard, Barrett and Williamson.

This has irritated Cal mightily and he knows Reddish’s game very well which could work against him.

That mind-game-within-a-game should be interesting but so should this: remember last spring, after Zion chose Duke, and Calipari went off on Coach K and Duke?

If not, check this for a refresher.

Coaches always gloss over public disagreements and typically, coach speak rules the day and it will here too, if anyone remembers and bothers to ask.

We can promise you this though. Despite whatever Mike Krzyzewski might say publicly, we’re sure he noticed this rant. And being incredibly competitive, he hasn’t forgotten it.

He might not make a public issue out of it, he might not find it advisable to bring it up to his team, but if you think he’s forgotten it, better think again.

The man is a master motivator and that includes motivating himself. That episode will have helped Coach K to help prepare Duke for this game. Youth may be problematic, but we expect the effort will be powerful.

We have one more thought we’re tempted to add but we’ll hold it for now and if it Duke wins and it happens we’ll mention it on the other side.

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