College basketball may have just started, but it’s not wasting any time grabbing our attention.
The Champions Classic pits four of the AP's Top Five teams against each other when Kentucky battles with Michigan State and Duke tangles with Kansas. The matchup with the Jayhawks highlights a loaded nonconference schedule for the Blue Devils, and there is plenty at stake for Mike Krzyzewski’s bunch.
Before delving into what hangs in the balance for Duke, it’s worth pointing out what is not at stake—a spot in the national championship game. Unlike its gridiron counterpart, an early season loss in college basketball (especially to a quality opponent like Kansas) does not virtually eliminate a talented team from a race to earn the most favorable numbers in a computer-generated formula.
That means this marquee showdown can serve as a valuable teaching opportunity for Krzyzewski as he leads his young team going forward. Nobody wants to lose any game, but even if Duke was to fall to Kansas, playing contests like this one early in the season is critical for March preparation.
One of the primary things at stake for Duke on Tuesday is the confidence going forward for the newcomers and an understanding of how they blend in against stiffer competition than Davidson. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are the two best players on this team, but each only has one game of experience under his respective belt as a Blue Devil.
If Parker and Hood were to play well against the formidable Jayhawks and continue to mesh with their teammates, it will instill a sense of self-assurance that should last the whole season. Considering the talent level and willingness to share the ball from both, there is no reason to expect this not to happen.
Another thing at stake along those same lines is Coach K’s confidence in his interior players. There won’t be many teams the Blue Devils play this season that are more physical than the Jayhawks, so it gives Duke’s big men an opportunity to test their mettle.
It is no secret that Duke struggled with rebounding a season ago, and despite the blowout victory over Davidson to start the year, the Wildcats won the rebounding battle 31-27. Between Amile Jefferson, Josh Hairston, Marshall Plumlee and even Parker, the Blue Devils need to prove against Kansas that rebounding isn’t going to be a crippling issue all year.
While what is at stake for the team as a whole may be more important in the long run, there is also plenty hanging in the balance in the individual showdown between super-freshmen Parker and Andrew Wiggins.
We have spent an entire summer listening to hype about how Wiggins is the best prospect since LeBron James and is a lock to be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft, but Parker has a chance to let the nation know there’s more than just one freshman to consider. If he were to dominate Wiggins and lead his team to victory, national awards and perhaps even draft positioning could be impacted.
Obviously, this one game will not ultimately decide any of that, but if there is a dominant performance from one over the other, it could stick in the back of voters' or even scouts' minds.
On a more macro scale, outside of the individual showdown or Duke’s confidence as a team, is the overall impact of this game on the season’s outlook. As mentioned, unlike football it won’t cripple any national title hopes if the Blue Devils were to lose, but there is still only a handful of teams that have a legitimate chance at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
A win for Duke would give it a critical head-to-head victory over one of those top-seed contenders. Marquee nonconference wins are one of the few ways in college basketball to really separate your resume from those of your peers before Selection Sunday.
Look for the Blue Devils to begin doing just that as they knock off Wiggins and the Jayhawks Tuesday night.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.