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Kentucky vs. Duke: 4 burning questions before Champions Classic matchup

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Kentucky. Duke. Champions Classic. No. 2 vs. No. 4. What does it all mean?

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky Media Day
Kentucky’s frontcourt will face one of their toughest challenges right out the gate with Duke on Tuesday night in Indianapolis.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday’s matchup between No. 2 Kentucky and No. 4 Duke is unique in more ways than just it being the first official game of the 2018-19 campaign for both teams.

Not only does it symbolize what should’ve been the 2015 National Championship in Indianapolis one of the biggest games on the entire college basketball calendar this season, it features eight (EIGHT!) of 247 Sports’ top 25 players on the 2018 recruiting trail.

Like virtually every Kentucky-Duke game, the glitz and glamour of two of the greatest programs in the history of the sport will be featured. Tuesday will feel like a Final Four game. Of course, not everything for the ‘Cats this season is decided with this one game in early November, but it’s a game that can go a long way in many ways for both teams.

Here’s five burning questions before the ‘Cats and Blue Devils duke it out (pun intended) in Indy.

Who starts out hot? Will it be a sluggish start for both?

In the previous seven years (4-3) of the Champions Classic for Kentucky, it’s been pretty clear that nerves have played a factor in the start for the ‘Cats will such a young bunch every year but one and I’m sure you remember the year they weren’t exactly youth-filled.

(For those that need/wanted a flashback, the last time the Champions Classic was in Indy, the ‘Cats pummeled No. 5 Kansas by 32 points in their 38-1 campaign.)

Both teams are filled with a few of the best prospects in the country and the jitters will be aplenty with a raucous crowd and a ton of NBA-related eyes on Bankers Life Fieldhouse. A hot start for either team could be a sneaky important factor in the grand scheme of things at the end of Tuesday.

Or, we could be in for one of those starts like in 2015 when Marshall Plumlee, the final of the 27 Plumlees to attend Duke, was seemingly the only one that could put the ball inside of the orange circle for what seemed like an entire half.

Kentucky found themselves down 11 in Chicago against Kansas a season ago through the first six minutes before trimming the lead down to one before the half.

It could be fun. It could be ugly. But the first few minutes could be important if you’re rooting for a Kentucky victory on Tuesday.

Does anyone go from a blip on the radar to something bigger?

Last year, one of the performances that got Kentucky back into the game other than a hot shooting exhibition from Kevin Knox was the all-around play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and we all saw how things worked out for him from the 65-61 loss to Kansas on throughout the season.

Kentucky’s loaded with talent and a dabble of experience and there’s plenty of familiarity among the Big Blue Nation with their new crop of ‘Cats already.

Still, is there anyone who could potentially go from “he’s good” to “whoa, he might be really, really good”?

If I had to make a guess personally, I would say a guy like Ashton Hagans could be that guy. The expectations have gotten even higher for guys like Tyler Herro and PJ Washington since the Bahamas trip. Keldon Johnson will most certainly be looking to put on a show, too.

Another guy that could be key in this matchup and beyond? EJ Montgomery.

If it’s close, who makes the big play(s)?

Kentucky’s lost a couple of tight finishes against Michigan State (2014) and Kansas (2017). In 2014, the ‘Cats trailed 76-74 with 46 ticks left. Last year, the ‘Cats trailed 61-59 with 1:46 left.

These games can be perfect for practicing execution in the clutch. It can give John Calipari an early look at what his go-to lineup could/would be with meaningful games later in the year.

In the final exhibition against Indiana University (Pa.), Calipari went with Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards to start things out.

The good thing for Kentucky is that like virtually every year under Calipari, they have flexibility. A former All-Pac-12 forward off the bench and a solid shooter that can run the point are two nice pieces to have, right? (This isn’t even including Immanuel Quickley.)

It’ll be interesting to see how Calipari starts and probably more importantly, finishes the game on Tuesday.

Does losing in the Champions Classic spell disaster?

OK, first thing’s first ... no. It’s November. Don’t even creep to that ledge if the ‘Cats lose on Tuesday night.

But, just for fun, let’s take a look at how the ‘Cats have fared in the seven seasons of the Champions Classic.

2011-12: defeated Kansas, 75-65

Season result: National Champions

That was a fun season, wasn’t it?

The beginning of Anthony Davis becoming one of the best basketball players on the planet.

2012-13: lost to Duke, 75-68

Season result: lost to Robert Morris in NIT

That ... wasn’t a fun season.

2013-14: lost to Michigan State, 78-74

Season result: lost to UConn in National Championship

The ending was kinda tough, but Aaron Harrison never has to pay for another thing in Lexington for the rest of his life.

2014-15: defeated Kansas, 72-40

Season result: lost to Wisconsin in Final Four

Sam Dekker ruined everything. I know. It still hurts.

You were a good one, Alex Poythress.

2015-16: defeated Duke, 74-63

Season result: lost to Indiana in the Round of 32

OG Anunoby rose for the occasion and shut down Jamal Murray, but rumor has it ... they’re still bragging about Christian Watford hitting that one shot that one time, totally forgetting they later lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 that season.

Hey, remember when Alex Poythress almost lost a tooth or like, all of them?

2016-17: defeated Michigan State, 69-48

Season result: lost to North Carolina in Elite Eight

It’s a shame that Malik Monk’s miraculous 3-pointer to tie that UNC loss is basically forgotten now.

2017-18: lost to Kansas, 65-61

Season result: lost to Kansas State in Sweet 16

... Loyola-Chicago really went to the Final Four, didn’t they?

***

Simply put, the Champions Classic doesn’t decide the season for the ‘Cats. It’s November. This team will be very, very good. Try not to stress too much. Big games like this are supposed to be fun, especially to kick off the season.

(But if we’re getting technical, the four years that Kentucky has won at the Champions Classic, they’ve got to at least the Elite Eight in three of those four years, so ...)