When the Duke Blue Devils take on the Kentucky Wildcats in Atlanta on Tuesday, not only will it be a clash of basketball philosophies, but it will be Duke’s game to lose.
Playing in Atlanta, the site of this year’s Final Four, Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke and John Calipari’s Kentucky will encapsulate the two ways to deal with defining issue of modern college basketball: the emergence of one-and-done players.
Coach K and Duke aren’t unfamiliar with one-and-done players. Each of the past two years Duke has sent a freshman guard to the NBA (Kyrie Irving 2011, Austin Rivers 2012). But the overall emphasis of the Blue Devils has been to recruit players likely to stick around for a three- or four-year career and use that time to develop them into better players.
Case in point: When Duke steps out onto the court against Kentucky, the Blue Devils will be sporting three seniors in the starting five, and each of those players is only reaching their potential at the end of their college career.
Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly were both McDonald’s All-Americans coming out of high school, but the two big men had much to work on in the college ranks. As freshmen on the 2010 national championship team, Mason Plumlee averaged only 14 minutes/game and 3.7 points while Ryan Kelly accrued 6.5 minutes/game and 1.2 points (via ESPN).
Despite being highly touted, neither Plumlee nor Kelly showed themselves to be ready for big-time roles as freshmen. At that point in their development, neither offered the coaching staff a better option than the limited skill set of Lance Thomas (averaged 25 minutes/game in 2010).
As underclassmen, both Plumlee and Kelly did show signs of their potential. No one denied Plumlee's athletic inside presence or Kelly’s outside shooting. Yet it took both of them time to develop their natural talents into the skills that make them the threats they are today.
This year, Kelly has 20 points-per-game potential and has developed an inside game to go along with his shooting ability that lures post players out onto the perimeter.
Plumlee’s footwork as a younger player was often so bad that he had a tendency to look clumsy. Now, as a senior, he, not unlike Brian Zoubek, has seemingly put it all together and is playing like an absolute beast in the paint.
Seth Curry, the third Duke senior, wasn’t highly courted coming out of high school and ended up at Liberty. It wasn’t until his older brother lit up the basketball world at Davidson that Seth started getting interest from teams willing to take him on as a transfer.
As a fifth-year senior for Duke, Curry’s basketball IQ is off the charts, and his understanding of the system affords him the versatility to play shooting guard or at the point.
Along with those well seasoned seniors, all of whom have vastly improved their game since donning a Duke jersey for the first time, Duke will start either a junior or sophomore at point guard and only rely on substantial minutes from two true freshman in the eight-man rotation (Alex Murphy, a redshirt freshman, didn’t play in the season opener, but if the rotation extends to a ninth player, he’d be it).
Kentucky, on the other hand, will trot out a starting five that includes three true freshmen and two sophomores.
There is no escaping the fact that the freshman in question are among the most talented in the country. Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin all had college recruiters salivating. Their star power already has NBA scouts circling like vultures, despite the fact each of them has played only one collegiate game.
If Tuesday’s matchup were about comparing the talents of each team, or comparing the high school accolades or newspaper ink or digital bites spilled over heaping praise on the teams’ players, Kentucky would win handily.
Fortunately for Duke, the winner will be determined on the court. And while talent often wins the day in modern college basketball, this early in the season Duke’s familiarity as a team is far superior to that of Kentucky’s.
For all the hyped players the Wildcats boast, in their game against Maryland it was junior Jarrod Polson who came away the crunch-time hero.
In his two previous seasons at Kentucky, Polson averaged 2.8 and 1.8 minutes per game. Polson’s clutch performance illustrates the fact that while the heralded freshmen are rich in talent, their understanding of their roles on the team are yet to be firmly defined.
Against the Terps, the two big men of Noel and Poythress scored eight and four points respectively. For post players, even ones deemed to be NBA ready coming out of high school, development is often slow.
Those two must not only learn to play against college opponents, but they also have to learn to play with each other. I imagine in high school and in the AAU circuit, neither had much experience coexisting with a teammate as supremely talented as the other.
Duke doesn’t have to deal with such problems. The Blue Devils’ team chemistry is a trademarked formula, while Kentucky’s chemistry is still an ad hoc mixing of ingredients.
Duke’s experience grants them superior understanding of its offensive and defensive systems, ensures that the players know their roles and has allowed less praised players to develop through playing and practice time to reach their potential.
Beyond that, Duke has a certain "must win" motivation behind this game. Not only are there the usual Duke critics claiming this team is overrated, but Duke has to know that this Kentucky team will only improve as the year goes on.
In the second game of the season, Kentucky may not know what each player is expected to do, or may not fully comprehend every detail of the game plan, but after a full season the Wildcats will. It would do a great disservice to the Blue Devils' confidence if they lost to a team that is certain to be much improved come tournament time.
Pardon the pun, but for all those reasons, come Tuesday the ball will be in Duke’s court. Duke has an experienced and seasoned team that needs to win to silence the critics and validate Coach K's philosophical focus on long-term player development.
There’s a lot riding on the outcome, practically and philosophically, but at this point in the season, it’s Duke’s game to lose.