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Next Up: Kentucky In The Champion’s Classic

And in the Garden too!

State Farm Champions Classic
Cam Reddish drives on Kentucky

A Duke-Kentucky matchup is always a marquee event. Even in 1988, when Kentucky was coming off the Emery scandal and Duke won 80-55, it was a big deal.

Look back at history.

In 1966, Duke and Kentucky were both essentially still segregated (CB Claiborne was a freshman Blue Devil and therefore ineligible at that time for the varsity team). Kentucky won that Final Four matchup and went on to lose to UTEP, which started five Black players in a game that had major historical implications.

Since then we’ve seen these:

  • In 1978, Duke and Kentucky met in the championship game.
  • Duke got revenge in 1979 in the season-opening Tip-Off Classic.
  • In 1980, Duke and Lexington native Vince Taylor remarkably won in the NCAA Tournament in Rupp Arena.
  • 1992 was the most legendary and the one that has really fueled the rivalry (you’ll note that Duke fans didn’t freak out about losing in ‘66 or ‘78).
  • In 1998, UK got its revenge, knocking off Duke in the South Regional Finals.
  • Duke then beat Kentucky in 2001 and 2012 in the Jimmy V Classic and the Champions Classic respectively.
  • Kentucky won in 2015 in the Champions Classic.
  • Duke won in 2018 behind Zion Williamson’s stunning collegiate debut.

Not that it matters much but Coach K is 6-2 vs. Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and John Calipari.

Both teams are substantially rebuilt after the Covid wipeout last season and both are as experienced as they have been in many years of leading the way in one-and-done recruiting.

Kentucky has, by John Calipari standards anyway, a stunningly experienced backcourt:

  • Kellan Grady, a 6-5 grad student transfer from Davidson
  • CJ Frederick, a 6-3 junior transfer from Iowa
  • Sahvir Wheeler, a 5-9 junior transfer from Georgia
  • Davion Mintz, a 6-3 grad student transfer from Creighton
  • TyTy Washington, a 6-3 freshman.

Although Frederick is getting over an injury and has only returned to practice in the last few days, that’s still a load. You can expect Wheeler and Washington to start in the backcourt.

In the middle, Oscar Tshiebwe could prove to be a load. The West Virginia transfer is a junior and he’s 6-9 and 255. We can expect Mark Williams to start but if Tshiebwe proves to be too strong, Theo John may get a lot more time than a lot of people expected because not many guys are going to be stronger than John is.

Limiting Tshiebwe would help Duke’s cause a great deal.

Grady and Keion Brooks also started against Miles College Friday. Brooks is a 6-7 junior who has plenty of talent but hasn’t managed to emerge as a superior player. Grady on the other hand may be the best talent at Davidson since that Curry guy who we hear has done okay in the NBA.

Kentucky also has 6-9 junior Jacob Collins, 6-9 sophomore Lance Ware, 6-9 freshman Daimon Collins and freshmen Dontaie Allen and Bryce Hopkins, both 6-6.

We’ve watched UK’s exhibition games, not closely though but enough to get some idea of these guys.

In our opinion, the most talented guys are probably Collins and Ware, but both are pretty raw. They both made elemental mistakes - but both are so talented that coach John Calipari cannot ignore them.

Collins is capable of doing some really foolish things, but there’s not a guy on the team who could pull off the block he did on Kentucky Wesleyan near the top of the key.

There aren’t many guys period who could do that. It was spectacular.

However, he’s prone to do some foolish things and that may temper Cal’s enthusiasm, at least early.

Same for Ware. He’s wonderfully athletic but prone to making mistakes so obvious that even laymen can see them. It must be driving Calipari mad.

If Toppin is behind them, it’s not by much. And he's from a talented family - bother Obi is with the Knicks after a brilliant career at Dayton.

If those guys figure it out, Kentucky is going to be a real load.

It’s oversimplication, but to an extent this game is Kentucky’s quickness vs. Duke’s size and power (or, in other words, a complete reversal of the norm between these two).

Williams, John and Banchero mean that Duke’s interior defense could be really devastating. But here’s the thing.

Duke’s backcourt and wing play will also be tough.

As things gel, Duke could have a devastating defensive perimeter with Jeremy Roach, Wendell Moore and AJ Griffin.

With Wheeler and Washington, Kentucky should be able to defend Roach well but what we saw against Winston-Salem State from Roach was a guy who is also going to be a terrific defender, far better than he was last season. Moore is in the best shape of his life, in every sense, and Griffin has immense athleticism and works hard on defense. He’s a bit behind due to a knee sprain but he could also easily emerge in this game.

Keep this in mind too: UK hasn’t looked that impressive in its exhibition games but part of that is due to illness and injury. Frederick has just returned to practice and we’re sure he won’t play Tuesday. Tshiebwe had a relatively minor injury - we think a bruise - and was sick for several days last week. Toppin and Hopkins also both had injuries but may be 100 percent now.

Having watched both of these teams play a bit, right now, Duke looks to be ahead. As we’ve said often, because it is so tightly organized, Duke is generally ahead of other teams early.

That said, this will be an extremely intense game and as Goose Givens showed us in 1978, and Christian Laettner underscored in 1992, you can’t take anything for granted between these two.