The Kentucky Wildcats (1-0) and Duke Blue Devils (1-0) travel to Atlanta, Ga. for a titanic, made for TV tilt at the Georgia Dome, UK's home-away-from-home. Both teams are coming off season-opening wins, as the 'Cats beat-back the Maryland Terrapins second half surge, 72-69, and Duke dispatched Georgia State behind Mason Plumlee's 19 points and 14 rebounds, 74-55.
Tonight's contest will be the two team's 20th all-time meeting, with UK having won 11 of the previous 19 contests, although Duke boasts a 4-1 mark against the 'Cats since the arrival of Mike Krzyzewski for the 1980-'81 season. Dating back to 1979, the Blue Devils have won six of seven games from the 'Cats, while in neutral site games, UK holds a 7-6 all-time advantage. The two blue-blood programs have combined to produce 11 National Players of the Year, 12 National Championships, and 90 All-Americans.
For a comprehensive look at the UK vs. Duke rivalry, go here to Glenn's outstanding article from this morning.
Kentucky vs. Duke: The Breakdown
Blue Devil offense
The Blue Devils will start three guards, led by 6-foot-1 junior point guard Tyler Thornton. Thornton, who started 19 games last year and averaged 21.1 minutes per contest, will run Coach K's motion, screen-oriented offense where his job will be to either penetrate UK's man-to-man defense, pulling defenders away from the corners where shooting guard's Seth Curry (6-foot-2 senior) and Rasheed Sulaimon (6-foot-4 frosh) will surely take up residence, or run the pick-and-roll with Duke's seasoned big men, 6-foot-10 Mason Plumlee and 6-foot-11 Ryan Kelly.
The Blue Devils will also attempt to free-up their stretch "4s" (primarily Kelly) with a multitude of offensive looks. UK coach John Calipari had this to say about Duke's offensive mindset:
"When you watch Duke, they are a veteran team, they know how they are playing. They do a great job of posting the ball, they do a great job of spacing the court. They use pick-and-rolls for threes and if you leave corners ... if you leave a corner it is (an) automatic buried three."
When Cal says the Dookies will bury the trey, he's not just whistling Dixie. The Blue Devils boast a bevy of legitimate threats from distance who are unafraid of launching from beyond the arc if given the slightest opening. Against GSU in its opener, Duke nailed 11-of-24 trifectas (45.8 percent), with practically every man on the roster contributing to the long-distance carnage: point guard Thorton was 3-of-6 from distance, Sulaimon made 2-of-3, Seth Curry, Duke's (slight-of-frame) strongest post-up shooter, made 3-of-7, backup point guard Quinn Cook connected on 2-of-4, and Kelly 1-of-3.
In the Blue Devil front court, Plumlee will be the focal point of the Duke attack. Coach K likes to pick-and-roll with his big man, taking advantage of Plumlee's mobility. Dangerous with the ball in his hand, if Plumlee, after receiving the rock on the pick-and-roll, opts not to take the ball to the rim because of defensive pressure, he's capable of quickly finding the open man, either on the wing, or with an interior pass.
Calipari, quite succinctly, summed up his thoughts on Plumlee -- who averaged 11.1 and 9.2 rebounds last season, to go along with 1.6 blocks per game -- like this:
"(Plumlee) may be the best big we see all year. (Alex) Len was pretty good, but Plumlee is clearly better."
(For those UK fans who may have forgotten, Len torched UK with 23 points and 12 rebounds in the 'Cats win over Maryland.)
Plumlee's front court mate Kelly is the dictionary definition of a dual-threat "4." Kentucky must be mindful of his whereabouts on the court at all times, for he will take and make the 3-pointer if given only a whisper of an opening.
With Duke running the inside-outside game as well as anyone in the country, UK must maintain pressure on the ball, forcing Thornton and Cook (a 6-foot-1 sophomore) into areas of the floor they would rather not be. Not unlike UK's dribble-drive offense, Coach K's offensive attack is predicated on getting the best possible shot for his team, whether it be a layup or wide-open trey, and he is as good as any coach in the country at recognizing a defense's weaknesses, and then exploiting it.
One of Kentucky's weaknesses, illustrated to an alarming degree in the 'Cats narrow win over the Terps, is rebounding -- UM smothered the 'Cats in the paint, winning the board battle 54-38, 28-13 on offensive rebounds -- something Calipari touched on in his pregame comments.
"I just thought we're 7-foot, 6-foot-11, 6-foot-10, 6-foot-9, we'll rebound. No! When your guards are taking off, and they're wedging you under and you're looking at the ball and you're (out of bounds under the basket) next to the cheerleaders, you're probably not going to get the ball."
Physicality and solid rebounding fundamentals are what was lacking in UK's front court play against Maryland. Something Cal and staff have had a very short time to work on. Cal, though, emphasized that, by simply following a Cardinal rebounding rule, the 'Cats should alleviate at least some of their first game board-work woes.
" ... we follow the flight of the ball. You don't follow the flight of the ball, (instead) you see the flight (as the ball is released) and you go find somebody (putting a body on the would-be defensive rebounder) and go get the ball."
Sounds simple, but with UK's fresh-faced, inexperienced big men playing high-level college basketball for the first time, playing fundamentally sound sometimes is more of a challenge than it would be with a more experienced rotation. Rebounding is an area the 'Cats have been working on, but Cal warned, possibly at a cost of dipping execution in other areas.
"But we worked on it (rebounding); it's going to take time. We have habits, (and) there is only one way to break habits and that's to do it over and over, but you can't do 55 things a day over and over. So if you then switch to (working on) rebounding, something else has to give a little bit. I hope our offense, we didn't do anything offensively for two days really, and that may hurt us now. And that's where we are right now.".
With only three players taller than 6-foot-8 likely to see serious playing time against Kentucky, the Blue Devils are not exactly loaded with tall timber. But rebounding is more about positioning and hustle, aka, which team wants the ball the most. Tonight we'll see if Calipari's emphasis on rebounding fundamentals pays off with UK at least holding it's own on the boards against the more seasoned Blue Devils.
Kentucky's offense, which Cal noted has not been worked on in two days of practice, will be run -- because of an energy-sapping illness to Ryan Harrow (sweet-shooting Julius Mays will start) -- by Archie Goodwin and first game hero Jarrod Polson. With Goodwin manning the point, Cal thinks his ability to get to the rim will be beneficial to UK's offense.
"That's why I like him (Goodwin) at point guard. That's what we had with Tyreke (Evans) at Memphis That's the kind of stuff you want, because the guy with the ball can score any time he wants. I also like Jarrod (Polson) at point guard, and moving him off the ball."
Goodwin also brings a physical presence to the point guard spot, something that as of now, Harrow does not possess. Goodwin also owns a three-inch height advantage over Duke's Thornton, which could go a long way in determining which team's point guard is able to successfully run his team.
The Wildcat offense, which received tremendous production out of reigning SEC Player of the Week Kyle Wiltjer in UK's first game, will look to get everyone involved, especially Alex Poythress, who played well below his abilities against Maryland. Getting Poythress easy looks, or possibly to the free throw line where he can see his shot go in the basket, is the most affective way for the UK forward to gain confidence, and hopefully not force the issue, instead, allowing the game to come to him.
Wiltjer poses a problem for any defense he faces. His ability to make shots from 25-feet in, or drive the lane for a baby hook, makes him a typically versatile Calipari protege, and job No. 1 for the Duke defense on this night.
Additionally, the play of Wiltjer, along with Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein adroitly executing the pick-and-roll, will be key to a UK win. If the 'Cats are able to take advantage of their length by playing smartly on the offensive end -- not forcing the issue, and passing out of trouble -- Kentucky might be lucky enough to saddle Duke's big men (Plumlee, Kelly, and Amile Jefferson, a 6-foot-8 frosh) with foul issues, turning a tough defense into one which hesitates. And a hesitating defense, is a dead defense.
Defensively, Coach K is a mad scientist run amok. The Duke boss will throw all manner of defenses at the 'Cats, both in the half court and on UK's in-bounds plays, playing a game of risk with their overplaying defensive style, something Calipari talked about with the media:
"They play really hard (defensively). They deny (the pass), they try to steal, they switch out of bounds plays, they play pick-and-roll defense funky."
Suffice it to say, the youthful Wildcats have never before faced the type of defensive pressure, and the multitude of defensive looks, they are likely to see tonight in taking on the Blue Devils. Being sure with the ball and strong with passes are the most affective ways to combat Duke's unusual pressure. Something easy to type, but very difficult to execute.
Kentucky vs. Duke will be a battle of youth versus experience. Calipari is fond of saying he'll take talent over experience every time, but tonight, Duke's experienced talent will challenge this Wildcat squad, possibly uncovering more areas of the game UK needs to work on. Victory for Big Blue will be hard to come by, but after watching the 'Cats weather the Terrapin storm, and with Cal having a great history of winning close games at Kentucky, victory is never out of reach.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats, beat the Devils.
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