Duke v. Kentucky: What We'll Learn Tonight

The top two programs in college basketball will provide big early season tests of one another as the Duke Blue Devils and Kentucky Wildcats face off on Tuesday night in the Champions Classic.

2-0 Overall, 0-0 Conference 


F- 01 Skal Labissiere (17.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg)
F- 00 Marcus Lee (11.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg)
G- 23 Jamal Murray (13.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 5.0 apg)
G- 13 Isaiah Briscoe (11.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg)
G- 03 Tyler Ulis (8.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.5 apg) 



Reigning SEC Rookie of the Week Skal Labissiere promises to be a tough match-up for Duke.  The 6-foot-11 freshman scored a team high 26 points against NJIT and leads the Cats in scoring at 17.5 points per contest.  

Labissiere is capable of scoring in a variety of ways near the basket, and is a better than average shooter from the free throw line.  In fact, 10 of his 26 points came at the charity stripe against the overmatched players from NJIT.  In the opener against Albany, Labissiere posted nine points, five rebounds and a team-high four blocks. The four blocks in his season debut were the most since Anthony Davis had five against Marist in 2011.

But head coach John Calapari is, as usual, relying on several other big time players to keep his program among the nation’s elite.  Joining Labissiere as one of the top freshmen in the country is Jamal Murray, a powerful combo guard who many tab as one of the top NBA backcourt prospects in the country. 

In the season opener against Albany Murray led the Wildcats with 19 points, eight assists and three steals. He became the first UK player with at least 19 points, at least eight assists and at least three steals in a single game since John Wall posted 21 points, 11 assists and three steals vs. Rider on Nov. 21, 2009. 

Looking above the newcomer line of the roster, the Wildcats have one of the steadiest point guards in the country in Tyler Ulis.  Though small (he’s just 5-foot-9), Ulis is a very strong floor general and rarely makes mistakes with the balls.  A season ago he ranked third in the nation in assist to turnover ratio.  



Last year the Wildcats were the biggest team in the country and made a living on the glass.  After being eliminated by Wisconsin in the Final Four, Kentucky saw much of that size move on to the NBA.  And while Duke will actually be the taller of the two groups on the floor on Tuesday, Kentucky still has quite a number of big and talented players.

Through two games the Wildcats have lived on the glass, out-rebounding their opponents by an average of 18.5 rebounds per contest.  In the previous game against NJIT, Kentucky pulled in 54 rebounds compared to their opponents’ 23.

Meanwhile, the Blue Devils will pose a different set of challenges for UK as Duke enters Tuesday night’s game averaging an impressive 43.5 boards per night.    


Through two games that Blue Devils have shown flashes of being a very good defensive team.  It begins with on the ball pressure and the different looks shown by Coach K’s team.  At times Duke has shown a three-quarter court press, a 1-3-1 zone, and other wrinkles that are a marked departure from the traditional man-to-man defense seen for more than 30 years inside Cameron.  

A lot of it has to do with Duke’s length and size, and some of it has to do with Krzyzewski continually evolving his strategy.  Whatever the reason, it has caught the attention of UK coach John Calamari.

“He is mixing up their defense like I’ve never seen them, which is they’re playing 1-3-1, a 2-3, a 1-2-2, a 1-2-2 press. Sometimes fakes, sometimes they come. They spread out a 1-3-1. He’s trying everything to see if he figures out what he likes for the team.”

In the two games this season, Duke has hassled opponents into an average of 18.0 turnovers per game. The Blue Devils have turned the miscues into 22.5 points per game and an average +13.0 margin in points off turnovers. 


A season ago Grayson Allen was the eighth man in an eight man rotation.  But eight was enough to win last season’s national title and Allen played a huge role in that run.  Now, a year later, Allen has become one of the leading scorers in the country early in the season. 

In his first two games Allen scored 54 points in Duke’s first two games, one shy of Johnny Dawkins’ program record of 55 in the first two games to open a season (1983-84).

Duke was 5-0 when Allen scored in double figures in 2014-15. He averaged 16.4 points in those games. The Blue Devils moved to 7-0 all-time when Allen registers double-digit points after he opened the 2015-16 campaign with back-to-back double-digit scoring games.  


- Duke has the best winning percentage (.839) in the NCAA since the start of the 2009-10 season. The Blue Devils have also won 187 games this decade, second-most in the NCAA. 

- Duke is 27-13 in top-five matchups under Mike Krzyzewski, including an 8-2 mark on those occasions since the start of the 2009-10 season. 

- Duke is 3-1 in the Champions Classic, including a 75-68 win over Kentucky in Atlanta in 2012. 

- Mike Krzyzewski owns a 1,020-310 record over 40-plus seasons as a head coach, including a 947- 251 mark at Duke (35-plus seasons).

- As a team, Duke returned just 24.0 percent of its scoring (19.0 ppg), 32.3 percent of its rebounding (11.9 rpg) and 16.6 percent of its assists (2.5 apg) from last season’s national championship run.  As a group, the returning Blue Devils combined to start only 77 games heading into the season (Jefferson - 59; Jones - 18). That figure was the third-fewest in the ACC heading into 2015-16.

They Said It:

“I wish we were playing a year ago at the end obviously. I tell you what, Mike (Krzyzewski) has done a heck of a job because when you watch their tape they are driving that ball. They’re driving the ball. They’re running good stuff to put them in positions to drive the ball.” - John Calapari on Duke’s offense

“The history that these guys know is like two years. You’re going to ask them, ‘Hey, do you remember the 19 … Do you remember (Christian) Laettner?’ Who’s he? These guys don’t know.” - Calapari on the Duke-UK history

“They have Grayson, those other guys, Matt, and people like that. We have me, Jamal, Isaiah, Charles (Matthews), and we’re all just going to come out there and try to play as hard as we can, play to the best of our ability and try to get the win.” - Tyler Ulis on Duke’s backcourt

“This is a grit game, a grind-it game. They do a great job of wedging on rebounds. When they shoot the ball, they will wedge you all the way under to the cheerleaders. So, if you’re not ready to fight, they’re going to get offensive rebounds” - Calapari on Duke’s toughness inside.

The Prediction

Both teams have won two games against clearly overmatched opponents and both teams have looked good and bad at times in those contests.  Duke’s offense has been more explosive while UK’s defense has been more of a deterrent.  There is also a fair chance that both of these teams will have a chance to run this game back in late March if both improve and gel to the degree that has been flashed at different points through the first 80 minutes of basketball.  But, for now, the nation will be treated to the two elite programs in college basketball providing the first big test of the season for one another.  The game will likely be decided in the post where Duke has more experience, but UK has more depth.  It will also be interesting to see how Brandon Ingram factors in and how he defends the smaller UK wings, and how he attacks the Wildcats on the other end of the floor.   We look for a very close game coming down to the last four minutes.

Interestingly enough, Ken Pomeroy has Duke favored by one point with a 51 percent change of winning the game.   We’ll stick with him.

The pick…

Duke - 78
Kentucky - 74

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