Duke versus Kentucky. Madison Square Garden. Is there a better way to start a college-basketball season?
There’s always uncertainty coming into a new season but this uncertainty is magnified by what happened last season, or perhaps more accurately what didn’t happen. The NCAA conducted its 2021 NCAA Tournament without either of these blue bloods. Duke had a disappointing 13-11 season that ended when Covid-19 knocked Duke out of the ACC Tournament.
But that was nothing compared to Kentucky’s 9-16 train wreck.
Both teams have retooled, with lots of new faces, the new normal of college basketball, talented freshmen and talented transfers trying to blend with a handful of key returnees, trying to return to hoops relevance.
How do you prepare for a Kentucky team with so much roster turnover?
Wendell Moore addressed that point in a Friday media availability.
“It’s really tough because we don’t know what they do as a team yet. We’ve watched a couple of their exhibitions, just like they have for us. It’s going to be tough to scout. We know their personnel from what they’ve done at other schools but this is their first time as a team.”
So, the key is to concentrate on Duke.
“The main area for us is just to go out and just be in the moment,” Moore added. “It’s obviously one of the biggest games of our season but at the same time it’s not a season. It’s still one game. So, we want to come in locked in on this game and for all the games down the road, have the same mindset.”
Joey Baker also was a part of the media availability.
His take on beating Kentucky?
“We have to do what we do. We can’t get away from ourselves; good defense, staying together, communicating, Coach preaches those things to us, consistently no matter who our opponent is. Staying true to ourselves, not really worrying about anything else other than what we have to get done.”
Baker and Moore have very different experiences with the season-opening Champions Classic. Baker was a freshman when Duke pounded Kentucky 118-84 to open the 2018-’19 season but he didn’t play. Still, he vividly remembers that team’s “laser focus. We wanted to win and we prepared to win. I think this team is in a similar spot. We’re focused and listening to coach and following his lead. We’re highly motivated and excited to get out there and play together.”
Moore did play in the Champions Classic the following season, his first game at Duke. The Blue Devils beat Kansas 68-66 but Moore struggled, 1-6 in 12 minutes, with four turnovers.
Baker played only a few seconds in that game.
Moore says he’s ready for a redo in the bright lights of the Big Apple.
“My first game wasn’t my best experience. It’s always something I’ve remembered and I’m excited to go back with a chance to redeem myself with this team.”
About those bright lights. It’s going to be a new experience not just for Duke’s freshmen but also for the sophomores who played last season in empty or limited arenas.
Baker says the key is to enjoy the experience.
“Having played in those types of environments over the years and been a part of those incredible games, remembering the feelings I was feeling, all of us are excited to play but reminding the guys that it’s still basketball; that doesn’t change. Just keeping everybody cool and composed. I think our guys have really good heads on their shoulders and they’re prepared for the spotlight.”