Kentucky Basketball: 5 Keys to the Game Against Duke
When the Kentucky Wildcats take on Duke Blue Devils in the State Farm Champions Classic on Tuesday, it will be the first meeting between the teams since 2001. It will also offer an uncharacteristically high level of pressure and difficulty in an early season game for both teams.
The following are five keys to the young Wildcats coming away with a win against one of the program's most hated rivals of all time.
All stats, game recaps, and player profiles via ESPN.com
Listing rebounding as an important component in a game might seem akin to saying "the team that scores more points than the other one will win."
If you watched the Wildcats' season-opening win against the Maryland Terrapins, however, you know just how important (and disconcerting) UK's ability to crash the boards can be. Kentucky was out-rebounded by a 46-34 margin, including a staggering 23-12 margin on the offensive glass.
While there are a lot of things that Kentucky's talent can overcome to offset its youth (turnovers, poor free-throw shooting, etc), getting out-hustled like that is not one of them.
One thing that may work in the Wildcats' favor is that the Blue Devils look like they might not be a very good rebounding team, either. In their season-opening 74-55 win over Georgia State, Duke lost the rebounding battle by a small margin (31-30, 9-5 offensive), but it was against a far inferior opponent.
Still, the Wildcats shouldn't leave such a fundamental part of the game (especially with the size that they have inside) up to the chance of failure by the No. 8 team in the country.
2. Point Guard Production
While Ryan Harrow's poor performance against Maryland (which was likely not helped by the flu virus he was suffering from) may have helped create a great storyline for Jarrod Polson, it won't allow the Wildcats to keep up with the Blue Devils.
Polson proved that he is a very viable back up at the point guard position, but the team works best when Harrow is running the floor. This allows Archie Goodwin to remain at shooting guard and work as arguably the Wildcats' best scoring option.
Harrow will also have quite a challenge ahead of him going against junior defensive stopper (and decent scorer) Tyler Thorton, not mention Quinn Cook off the bench. He will need to be at the top of his game on both ends of the floor for Kentucky to leave Atlanta with a win.
3. Perimeter Defense
The Blue Devils shot 24 three-pointers in their season-opening win against Georgia State, which represented a little over half of their overall field-goal attempts.
What's even scarier is that they managed to make almost half of them (11-24, 45.8 percent). You can bet that guards Tyler Thorton and Seth Curry will be running off a lot of screens to get behind the three-point arc against the Wildcats on Tuesday.
When you can hear John Calipari screaming "TALK TO EACH OTHER" on television, he's not just talking about the offense. Kentucky will need to constantly communicate on defense to help fight through, switch and cover on screens against a veteran team like Duke if it wants to limit its opponent's field-goal percentage.
4. Shut Down Mason Plumlee
Maryland sophomore Alex Len is an excellent player, but Kentucky made him look like one of the best centers in the country in their game last Friday.
Duke senior Mason Plumlee will do what Len did and then some to the Wildcats if they are unable to contain him.
Due to the way the Blue Devils run much of their offense on the exterior, it also means that Kentucky's big men will often be matched up with Plumlee one on one.
If UK is unable to stop Plumlee with straight-up man defense on the inside, the Wildcats will need to do a good job of quickly communicating and bringing help to keep him from scoring at will underneath the basket.
5. Veteran Stability
While the media narrative about John Calipari's teams seems to always begin with how they have to "completely reload" with young players each season, there's another aspect that tends to get overlooked.
Each year, Calipari brings back a few veterans that not only provide experience on the court, but also help their freshmen teammates to keep a level head when the pressure gets turned up.
Playing the Duke Blue Devils in the second game of the season is the very definition of a "baptism of fire" for this year's young Wildcat team. While UK (hopefully) won't need sophomore Kyle Wiltjer to lead the team in scoring, it will need him to provide leadership and a calming presence in what figures to be a circus-like atmosphere inside the Georgia Dome.
Ryan Harrow, who played against Duke twice during his freshman season at NC State, will also be looked to for stability when the veteran Blue Devils try to intimidate the Wildcats and force them out of their offensive game-plan.
Polson also emerged as an unlikely veteran hero against Maryland, which will hopefully carry over into this game, as well.
Duke will have a huge advantage in years of experience on the court; its starting five includes three seniors. If Wiltjer, Harrow and Polson can help make up some of that ground by getting their team to stay calm and communicate to each other, the Wildcats' superior talent could (and should) take care of the rest.
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