Five keys to victory: Kentucky vs Duke
It is hard to remember a bigger season opening game in college basketball than Kentucky vs Duke on Tuesday night. The game features two teams ranked in the top 4 and two blue blood programs. This decade Coach Cal and Coach K have had massive recruiting battles while also dominating the sport. This game will be relatively meaningless by March but it would be a nice feather in the cap for the winner. It would be fairly shocking to see the game decided by more than 10 points either way. The winner will have a leg up on the loser in terms of eventual NCAA tournament seeding, which could prove valuable. With that said, the biggest thing on the line will be bragging rights. If Kentucky is going to head back to Lexington with the right to brag they need to do the following five things.
- Keldon Johnson has to make life miserable for RJ Barrett– The best NBA prospect in the game is probably Barrett by a fairly wide margin. He torched a Cal coached team USA for 38 points last summer. Cal had no one that could slow him down that day but Keldon Johnson was not on the team. In the McDonald’s All-American game it was Keldon Johnson that made crucial defensive stops against Barrett when the game was on the line. Barrett is super talented but Keldon is a unique talent in terms of his competitiveness. The key for Johnson will be to keep his emotions in check and stay out of foul trouble by being overly aggressive. Keldon plays with a chip on his shoulder against any opponent but it will be especially true when he is considered the underdog against Barrett.
- Reid Travis needs to play like a man among boys– Duke will start four freshmen which will make Reid Travis the most experienced player on the court by a long shot. Zion Williamson is a freak athlete and internet sensation but I feel confident in saying that he has never faced anyone with the size and strength of Reid. That could turn into foul trouble for Zion and a thin frontcourt for the Blue Devils if Reid uses his experience against them in the paint. Games like this are the very reason that getting Reid Travis was absolutely huge for Kentucky. Despite having already had a stellar collegiate career, this is a chance for Reid Travis to introduce himself to college basketball on the biggest stage.
- Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans must out play Tre Jones– Jones is the only real option at point guard for Duke so stopping him will be a big key. Hagans could be a lot of trouble for him defensively as an elite on-ball defender. Quickley can provide a bigger offensive punch than Ashton and will play big minutes as well. The key is that the duo get the best of Jones. In my opinion this is one area that Kentucky has the biggest advantage.
- PJ Washington has to show the world that he came back to dominate– PJ played better and better as the year went on but he has clearly taken his game to another level this off season. This game will be his chance to show it against elite NBA prospects. PJ seems to be a matchup problem for Duke. I am not sure the Blue Devils have anyone on their roster that is suited to stop him. I think a lot of eyes are going to open after they watch Washington play in this game.
- Kentucky needs to make seven or more threes– The Cats don’t need to make a ton from deep but they need to keep the defense honest. Tyler Herro, Quade Green and Immanuel Quickley are the players that really need to make shots. If they can force Duke to extend their defense it will open up the inside game for Reid Travis and PJ Washington. Typically Duke is known for their outside shooting but this is not the case this year. The Cats should have an advantage in that regard but they have to get the shots to drop.
Their are several other important factors including team rebounding, Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery and Quade Green. Any of those things could help push the Cats over the top but the five above are non-negotiable. It should be a fun game that goes down to the wire. I think Kentucky has the experience to edge out Duke for a 77-74 win. A loss would not be the end of the world this early in the season, but beating Duke always feels nice no matter when it is.