Kentucky and Duke are two programs that have been banner programs for a long time. The two meet up tonight in Chicago in the first marquee matchup of the college basketball season.
It marks the eleventh time that the two programs meet as AP top 10 teams which is the second most times by nonconference opponents (UCLA-Notre Dame). Both teams lost a large majority of their weapons from last season; however, as these two programs tend to do, they have reloaded for this season.
These two teams are both very talented and will be in the championship conversation come March. Here are what I believe to be the keys to the game:
1. Play defense without fouling. With the new emphasis on Freedom of Movement this season in college basketball, it is going to be critical for both teams to stay out of foul trouble. In the opening two games both UK and Duke are going around eight or nine players deep. This is better than the majority of teams around the country but with both of these teams wanting to play fast it could become an issue depending which players pick up these fouls. I will also be important to take advantage of fouls by hitting free throws. Duke is 48-65 from the line in their first two games while Kentucky is 34-48.
2. Protect the ball. It's no secret that Kentucky's guards are young and can be turnover-prone. In the first two games of the season, the 'Cats are averaging 17 turnovers a game while Duke is averaging just eight. Kentucky's competition has been tougher to this point of the season than Duke's but again, with both teams wanting to play fast, neither team will be in good shape letting the other run fast breaks.This is where the experience of Tyler Ulis will hopefully shine through.
3. Stars must be stars. That's right, the guys that everyone around the country have heard so much hype over must perform on this stage. For Duke that means Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram. These two are averaging a combined 45 points a game this far into the season for Duke and will need to continue that type of play for the Blue Devils tomorrow if they hope to win. For Kentucky it's the two freshman phenoms, Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere. They are averaging 31 points a game combined for the 'Cats.
4. The Great Equalizer. The three pointer. Which team will be able to take advantage of the open threes that will come from the fast break and dribble penetration? Duke is 37% from the three point line this season, although they shot 50% in their last game, a 113-75 victory over Bryant. Kentucky is just under 29% from the three point line through two games. Kentucky must knock down the open looks behind the arch and close out on Duke's shooters to win the game.
5. The X-Factors. For Kentucky these are Derek Willis and Alex Poythress. Can Derek Willis continue his great play on a national stage? And can Alex Poythress return to his play from his freshman year against Duke? For Duke, it's Matt Jones and Luke Kennard. If those two knock down perimeter shots Duke will be difficult to keep under 80.
These are my five keys to the game. A bonus being the rebounding battle. Will Skal and Lee be able to outrebound Jefferson and Plumlee (yes, Duke still has a Plumlee)? Of course I believe Kentucky will win this game. I'll say 86-83 Cats in a high scoring, sloppy game.
Go Big Blue!