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Kentucky vs. Duke: 3 keys to victory and matchup breakdown

Kentucky’s edge in experience headlines three keys in defeating a talented Duke team.

The Canadian Press and Sea of Blue

Tonight will tip-off the 2018-2019 season of college basketball, with the night’s highlight being a Champions Classic matchup between the Duke Blue Devils and Kentucky Wildcats.

The games will be the first outing of the season for both teams, as well as Kansas and Michigan State who play beforehand.

These are the two titans of college basketball, with both receiving high expectations throughout the season. The Blue Devils have brought in arguably their best recruiting class ever, landing Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett, Tre Jones and Zion Williamson.

With a heavy amount of talent as Kentucky’s opposition, there are three specific keys to coming back to Lexington victorious.

Veteran Leadership

For John Calipari, at-least during his Kentucky tenure, this is unfamiliar territory. His team, for what feels like the first time, has the clear advantage in regards to experience.

Just as Calipari has done in the past, the Blue Devils will most likely start four freshmen. Kentucky fans know all too well how difficult winning can be at the begging of the season when relying on multiple freshman, let alone in a game of this magnitude.

While the Kentucky freshmen should assert a substantial impact on Tuesday night’s game, returning sophomores Nick Richards, PJ Washington and Quade Green as well as graduate transfer Reid Travis, should be prepared for whatever adversity they could potentially face.

Improved Defense

Kentucky’s defense in their two exhibition games left much to be desired. In order to win tonight, the Wildcats’ will need to vastly improve their defensive efforts.

However, while Kentucky’s veteran forwards will shoulder the task of Williamson, there’s a young Wildcat who will need to answer his call more than anyone. Top-Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson, whether he starts or not, will most-likely be asked to prioritize being the “RJ Barrett stopper.”

Barrett is the top-overall recruit in the country, as well a player most deem as the most NBA-ready player in college basketball. Johnson’s ability as a top-tier defender is Kentucky’s best hope at slowing down the talented wing.

Washington will likely be tasked with covering Reddish at small forward. Reddish will work from the perimeter but is more likely to be aggressive towards the basket. Again, Kentucky should be able to counter this attack well considering Washington excels when defending inside the three-point line.

Kentucky’s defensive x-factor will be if Travis can use his raw strength to put the clamps on Williamson. The grad transfer is by far the most physical Wildcat and should be able to wear down the young freshman.


Offensively, Kentucky can’t afford to be stagnant. In exhibition play, Calipari looked to a motion offense that involved much of cutting, passing and screening. This style carries over from the end of last season, when a limited Kentucky team found their late-season success.

Generally speaking, the offense requires a lot of switching and communicating via the opposing defense, which could cause problems with Duke’s youth. Should Kentucky play smart and force Blue Devil mistakes, Tuesday night’s outing will be in the Cats’ favor.

But if Kentucky is stagnant and tries to play isolation ball, that’s where Duke has guys like Barrett, Reddish and Williamson that can take over if it turns into that type of game.

The two teams on paper seem to be evenly matched. Thus, comparing each position could reveal where one team may have a potential edge.

Now, let’s take a look at how the two teams compare at all five positions:

Point Guard

Duke: Tre Jones (F)

Kentucky: Ashton Hagans (Freshman), Quade Green (Sophomore), Immanuel Quickley (Freshman) & Brad Calipari (Junior)

Jones was the second-ranked point guard in the 2018 class. As the starting PG, Jones will face more pressure than Kentucky’s rotation. Green provides second-year experience, Hagans reclassified to join the Wildcats a year early and Quickley boasts his own unique talent.

Ultimately, Kentucky has far more depth than Duke at point guard.

Edge: Kentucky

Shooting Guard

Duke: RJ Barrett (Freshman), Alex O’Connell (Sophomore), Jordan Goldwire (Sophomore), Mike Buckmire (Sophomore) & Brennan Besser (Senior)

Kentucky: Tyler Herro (Freshman), Jemarl Baker (Sophomore), Johnny David (Senior)

Grayson Allen’s replacements come with limited experience. O’Connell, who could start, averaged just 3.3 points & 10.5 minutes per game while Goldwire played just 6.6 minutes per game.

However, RJ Barrett, the top-ranked player in 2018, will likely play shooting guard this season, despite being listed as a small forward. Regardless of where he plays, he’s going to be one of the best in college basketball.

Kentucky is also just as inexperienced, dressing three players that either weren’t with the team or didn’t often see the court. Neither side has experience, but the Wildcats have more upside. Herro has shown he can put up big numbers, but there isn’t much behind him to speak of.

The good news is Quade Green will probably playing shooting guard a lot this year, so this position is in good shape, though Duke gets the edge in this matchup.

Edge: Duke

Small Forward

Duke: Cam Reddish (Freshman), Joey Baker (Freshman), Jack White (Junior)

Kentucky: Keldon Johnson (Freshman)

Barrett and Reddish sit alone at the top of the 2018 class. Due to playing the same position, Duke will likely shift one to SG.

Johnson comes in as the top-ranked freshman for Kentucky. Ranked seventh in his class, he’s been called by many the team’s most consistent shooter and complete player.

PJ Washington’s natural position is power forward, but he could also see time at small forward due to Kentucky’s extensive depth in the front court. He averaged 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds & 27.4 minutes per game last season.

The Wildcats can match up with anyone in the front court, but the talent edge lands in Duke’s favor.

Edge: Duke

Power Forward

Duke: Zion Williamson (Freshman), Javin DeLaurier (Junior), Justin Robinson (Junior)

Kentucky: Reid Travis (Senior), E.J. Montgomery (Freshman), PJ Washington (Sophomore)

Williamson received more national recognition than any other recruit and is expected to be the Blue Devils’ star player.

Behind him, DeLaurier and Robinson add limited experience.

For Kentucky, Travis is the “old man” in the locker room. During four years at Stanford, Travis averaged 14.6 points & 7.7 rebounds per game. The Wildcats also boast their talented freshman, Montgomery, who was the 14th ranked prospect in the 2018 class.

Lest we forget Washington, who could actually see time at the 3, 4 and 5 spots in this game. His versatility and ability to guard bigs and wings could be the x-factor in deciding this game.

This position is probably the biggest toss-up between the two teams, with Duke posing slightly more talent compared to Kentucky’s stronger depth.

Edge: Kentucky


Duke: Marques Bolden (Junior), Antonio Vrankovic (Senior)

Kentucky: Nick Richards (Sophomore)

Neither deep is particularly deep at this position.

Bolden is a former McDonald’s All-American. Despite averaging just 10.1 minutes per game in his first two seasons, head coach Mike Krzyzewski believes he can be “as good a big guy as there is in the country.”

Vrankovic will back up Bolden, but despite being a senior, has only played in 32 career games.

Richards is technically the lone man for the Wildcats at this position, though many mentioned above could also see time in the middle. As a freshman, Richards averaged just 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game despite starting all 37 games for the Wildcats.

Neither team blows away the field at this position, but the upside favors Kentucky.

Edge: Kentucky

Which blue blood do you feel is deeper?