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Kentucky vs. Duke: A Tale Of Two Well-Matched Foes

The Kentucky-Duke game tomorrow is a classic early-season contest that could go right to the wire.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

In preparing for the game against the Duke Blue Devils, the Kentucky Wildcats will be facing, for the first time this season, an opponent that is fully as talented as the Wildcats are. Both teams have advantages and disadvantages that may be exploited on Tuesday night, and I’d like to take a look at some of them in light of what little we think we know about both teams at this very early point in the season.

Early tests are always instructive. The tell us a lot about where the team is in terms of maturity, comparative development and probable ceiling relative to another similarly talented team. Of course, these games are more like a snapshot in time than anything else. So much goes into a college team as the season progresses, it really can’t tell us that much about where they are likely to be in March. Teams, like players, progress at different rates, and often in fits and starts. Last season’s UK team was comparatively mature at this point in the year along with being extremely deep, and that showed up in spades when Kentucky crushed a very good Kansas Jayhawks team in a game that wasn’t even as close as the 72-40 final tally at this exact point in the season.

It would be absurd for Kentucky fans to think this year’s team will be anywhere near that level right now. Duke and Kentucky match up very, very well in this game, much better than UK did against Kansas last year. Duke is slightly more experienced, but not significantly so. Both teams are roughly similar size, with the biggest discrepancy being Tyler Ulis’ unusually small size for a player that gets as many minutes as he does. But as we all know, he more than makes up for that vertical challenge with an oversized heart and basketball IQ that nobody on Duke’s team has so far proven they can match.

So what we have here are two teams that could not be better matched at this point, both in terms of experience and development. Both are solidly undefeated with no close calls or major hiccups. Neither team has a significant injury, although Dominique Hawkins is just coming off a broken hand and has to be considered a bit limited at this point, and Alex Poythress isn’t quite all the way back from his torn ACL of last season. With all that said, let’s take a quick peek at the matchup.

Four factors

UK-Duke FF

(Four Factors data courtesy of

As you can see, so far this season both teams are shooting roughly the same eFG%. Kentucky, however has turned the ball over significantly more. This is a key stat to watch for the game.

The Wildcats have been a better offensive rebounding team so far, which tends to offset turnovers. Duke has been more successful getting to the line, but that statistic is somewhat deceiving considering much of their success was garnered off their last game against a very weak Bryant team. Kentucky has played significantly tougher opponents than Duke on average in their first two contests.

Other observations

  • Both teams have shot the ball well overall. Duke has been better shooting the three so far this season, but I don’t consider that a major factor in this game. Both teams can shoot the ball from the perimeter.

  • Kentucky has been slightly better defensively. Duke has had better offensive efficiency so far.

  • Kentucky blocks significantly more shots than Duke.

  • Both teams have similar defensive philosophies in that both like to pressure, but in different ways. Duke likes to pressure the ball as soon as the ball crosses half court. Kentucky likes to use the full-court press, but mostly uses it to reduce the time the opponent has to shoot in the front court.

  • Both teams like to attack the rim. Kentucky has slightly better personnel to do so.

  • Both teams have good depth both in front and back court. Duke is slightly bigger on the wing than Kentucky.

  • I think Duke will have a lot of trouble with Skal Labissiere, especially if he’s making his jumper. Players like Skal are rare in college basketball, and notably hard to defend, as NJIT will no doubt confess.

  • Kentucky is going to have to find a way to guard Grayson Allen. He’s started out on fire, much as he finished last season. He has been particularly effective inside the arc, and is getting to the line with great frequency.


This game is shaping up to be a classic early-season contest.  Ken Pomeroy has Duke favored by 1 point, 77-76 with a 51% chance to win. Some of that is based on last season, and neither team has much in common with the squad they fielded last year. I would call this a simple pick'em as far as favorites are concerned. Vegas, as far as I know, has not established a line as of this writing.

The stats don’t mean that much at this point in the season, except to point directionally at a couple of issues. Kentucky needs to do a better job taking care of the ball. Duke has been a little bit weak rebounding the ball and defending opposing players. All in all, this is a very even game that could go right down to the last possession.