Don’t be tricked by the specious rankings, or Dick Vitale’s effusing flattery of all things Big Blue. Kentucky is not the third best team in the country right now, nor is it better than Duke right now.
Vegas knows this. It’s why Duke opens up as a 3.5-point favorite heading into the main event at Tuesday’s Champions Classic despite Kentucky leading the way in the polls.
To be clear, Duke is no juggernaut by any means. And Kentucky has the requisite talent to make two separate trips to the Georgia Dome this season, one for the Champions Classic on Tuesday and a second for the Final Four in April.
But the Blue Devils, at this juncture in the season, are firmly ahead of the Cats, so much so that Kentucky winning on Tuesday would be some kind of unforeseen upset. When considering the context surrounding this game, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Wildcats win.
Duke doesn’t lose this time of year. Mike Krzyzewski seldom loses in the months of November and December. Since 2004, his Blue Devils are 50-2 in the month of November and 88-6 in the months of November and December combined. Subpar Duke teams—on Duke standards, that is—can be had later in the year. But November is Coach K time. No team in college basketball begins the year readier to play than Duke under the Hall of Fame head coach.
Unlike Maryland, Duke can shoot. Duke isn’t going to shoot the 3-ball like Maryland did on Friday in Brooklyn, when the Terrapins hit just 3 of their 19 shots from 3-point range and still managed to play Kentucky down to the wire. The Wildcats have had difficulty in the early goings contesting perimeter shots and staying home on pump fakes, which they’ll see in heavy doses on Tuesday with Seth Curry anchoring Duke’s backcourt. This isn’t a great perimeter shooting team relative to Duke standards, but the Blue Devils do have five guys who can knock down a triple if left open. That’s four more than Maryland had over the weekend.
Ryan Harrow isn’t playing. Beating Duke was a tall enough task for Kentucky even with a healthy Ryan Harrow at the helm. Without him, forget about it. Harrow, who has spent the last week battling the flu (and it showed on Friday), will not play Tuesday night for John Calipari. That means Archie Goodwin will again move from his natural 2-guard spot to the point, which hurts the Cats in two different places. Not only is Goodwin a downgrade at the point, but now the Cats also lose their top scoring guard in his natural, off-ball role. Julius Mays is a worthy replacement. But can the Cats really beat a team of Duke’s ilk with a makeshift point guard and Friday’s hero Jarrod Polson logging extended minutes once again?