LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Kentucky and Duke renew their blue-tinted rivalry Tuesday as they meet at the Meadowlands for the Jimmy V Classic.
The seventh-ranked Wildcats enter the game winners of six straight since a shocking season-opening loss to Western Kentucky, while the No. 1 Blue Devils are 9-0 and sparking talk of perfection.
"We don't ever talk about going undefeated," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "How stupid is that?"
No team has gone undefeated since 1976 when Bob Knight's Indiana squad rolled to the NCAA championship.
Kentucky has its chance to keep the Hoosiers' accomplishment safe at 9 p.m. Tuesday in front of an ESPN national audience, but Tubby Smith knows the task is daunting.
"They've been on TV quite a bit," said the UK coach. "I've seen them play about three or four times. They're a very talented team with a lot of outstanding players, guys who can do a lot of different things. That's what makes them such a tough team to play; they can beat you in so many ways."
The No. 1 way, obviously, is with preseason All-American and player of the year candidate Jason Williams. The 6-foot-2 junior guard is averaging 20.9 points and shooting 37 percent from 3-point range (27 of 73). He suffered a minor groin injury in the Blue Devils' last game, a 93-51 rout of North Carolina A&T, but not before dropping in six treys in the first half.
"Jason Williams is just an awesome player," Smith said. "He's an outstanding young man, and a real challenge for us.... One guy cannot really stop him. You've got to be really conscious about giving help and knowing where he is."
Kentucky is limiting opponents to 38 percent shooting from the field and 31 percent from 3-point range, but has been hurt on occasion by dribble penetration. That's a big priority facing Williams and backcourt mate Chris Duhon (9.3 ppg, 6.1 apg).
"They do a good job of spreading you out and making you defend them one-on-one," Smith said. "They can be very creative in the open court and in their halfcourt.
"Guarding people off the dribble is one of the big concerns we've had all year long. One-on-one defense, as well as our team defense, is a concern, but we've gotten better each game in knowing where we're supposed to be, being in the right place at the right time."
As if the backcourt tandem of Williams and Duhon weren't enough, Duke also features one of the nation's top swingmen in Mike Dunleavy (16.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg). The 6-9 junior has the ability to score from inside or out, shooting 35 percent from 3-point range.
Like Williams, though, Dunleavy is also nursing a minor injury. He sustained a sprained right ankle early in the game against NC A&T, but is expected to be near full-strength against the Cats.
The Blue Devils' frontcourt is rounded out by Rutgers transfer Dahntay Jones (10.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg), the team's most athletic player at 6-6, and center Carlos Boozer (17.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg). The 6-9 junior is shooting 57 percent from the field and 84 percent at the foul line.
Duke's top player off the bench is freshman guard Daniel Ewing (7.4 ppg), another dangerous shooter from behind the arc at 39 percent. Reggie Love, Casey Sanders and Nick Horvath are also giving the Devils solid minutes, if not spectacular stats, off the bench.
"You're probably talking about five or six guys who are probably going to play in the NBA someday," Smith said.
Like Kentucky, the Blue Devils are limiting opponents to under 40 percent from the field. "The intensity level they play with every game is really what every coach hopes for from his team," Smith said.
But unlike the Cats, they have not held a commanding edge on the boards this season. Duke's rebounding margin is only 4.4 per game, while UK's stands at 13.2.
Kentucky could have a distinct advantage with its three-man center rotation of 6-9 Marquis Estill (12.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg), 6-10 Marvin Stone (6.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and 6-11 Jules Camara (2.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg). The Cats' strategy figures to include taking the ball aggressively to the foul-prone Boozer in the early portion of the game.
The Cats will also need a steady game from sophomore point guard Cliff Hawkins --- coming off a career-high eight assists and five steals against Kentucky State --- as well as another hot start from its All-American, senior forward Tayshaun Prince (18.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg).
Two games ago, Prince had one of the most memorable performances in UK history when he hit five straight 3-pointers in a two-minute span to open the Cats' 79-59 rout of North Carolina. He finished with 31 points, including seven treys.
"What he did in those first five or six minutes was remarkable," Krzyzewski said. "But that's why he's an All-American."
"I know it's going to be important for me to get off to a good start, to get the team going early," Prince said. "At the same time, I know they have been watching film of what I've accomplished. I'm sure they'll send double teams and try not to let me get wide-open shots."
Kentucky also needs a strong effort from junior guard Keith Bogans (14.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg), who is shooting only 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range through the first seven games.
Bogans seemed to get back on track in a 118-63 rout of Kentucky State, hitting 6-of-12 from the field.
"It was good to see Keith get back on track," Smith said, "because we really need his shooting."
Hawkins, Bogans, Prince and Estill will likely be joined in the starting lineup by sophomore guard Gerald Fitch. The Georgia native is averaging only seven points this season, but brings a 4.9 rebound average to the table and is generally considered the Cats' best on-the-ball defender. He figures to draw the starting assignment on Williams with Hawkins matching up against Duhon.
The cat-quick Hawkins may also get a shot at Williams during the game, an opportunity he relishes.
"I knew this day was coming. I've tried to prepare for it," he said. "I'm going to go out there and see what I'm made of. I feel like I can guard anybody."
Getting mentally prepared to play clearly won't be a problem for either team.
"They're a great team, and we usually play great games with them," Dunleavy said. "We'll have to play our best."
"You try to approach every game the same way no matter who the opponent is, but some games just jump off the page at you," UK's J.P. Blevins added. "But when you see Duke coming up on the schedule, it's tough not to get excited."
"I know it's something I can't wait to do," Bogans said. "This was a game we figured on playing last year, but we messed up against USC and didn't get to play them in the tournament."
Bogans scoffed at the notion Duke should be the team that serves as a measuring stick for all others this season.
"That's funny," he said.
When asked to elaborate, Bogans said, "I just find that funny. I guess we'll see Tuesday night."
Kentucky owns an 11-7 series advantage over Duke. The Blue Devils won the last meeting between the teams, 71-60, in the 1998 Jimmy V Classic.
The team's most memorable matchups came in NCAA regional finals: the Blue Devils' 104-103 overtime win in 1992 classic battle, and the Cats' come-from-behind 86-84 triumph in 1998 en route to the national title.
Duke is 15-1 all-time