Kentucky and Duke are the Hatfields and McCoys of college basketball. Or, if you like your analogies more current, the Mitch McConnell and Steve Bannon. Especially on the Big Blue Nation side, schadenfreude is always at the ready.
It would not be a surprise if the non-playing rivalry, which largely exists in recruiting and speculation about greatest basketball programs, features a face-to-face confrontation in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. In separate games in the Champions Classic last Tuesday, both UK and Duke looked capable of advancing to a delicious showdown in March (or, if we’re lucky, the national championship game on April 2).
At this ultra-early stage of the season, who better to compare Kentucky and Duke than former UK player Mark Pope? His Utah Valley team lost 73-63 at Kentucky and 99-69 at Duke on back-to-back nights last weekend.
“Right now, I would guess Duke’s offensive ceiling is higher,” Pope said. “And I’d guess Kentucky’s defensive ceiling is higher.”
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UK’s length, athleticism and versatility will make scoring difficult for an opponent. “They have the potential to be the best defensive team in the country,” Pope said of this year’s edition of the Wildcats.
As Pope sees it, Duke has two decided advantages on offense.
One is Grayson Allen, who almost single-handedly beat Michigan State in the Champions Classic. He made seven of 11 three-point shots and scored 37 points.
“This Grayson Allen is probably the best player on either team right now,” Pope said. “He’s just playing out of his mind. And he’s a senior playing out of his mind.”
Pope also favored Duke’s offense at this stage for another reason.
“They seemed to have settled on a point guard who I think is functioning very close to how Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) wants him to function,” Pope said of Duke freshman Trevon Duval. “And I felt maybe Kentucky is not quite as settled in their point guard position, which is so important.”
Against Michigan State, Duval scored 17 points, got credit for 10 assists and made six steals.
Pope also favored Duke’s front line on offense.
“While Kentucky’s ‘bigs’ are longer and more athletic and probably more talented rim protectors, I felt they were less aggressive, less assertive, less quick-decision-making on post catches than Duke’s,” Pope said. “We had a tough time double-teaming Duke’s post guys because they went to work as soon as they caught it. And Kentucky’s guys seemed a little more methodical.”
Pope acknowledged that his opinions about Kentucky-Duke are “100-percent biased.” In favor of UK.
Speaking of biases, Pope spoke of how his team played evenly with Kentucky and Duke for stretches. Utah Valley even led UK 34-25 at halftime. He said the goal is to be good enough to play UK and Duke competitively for 40 minutes.
“Just to make everybody mad, tell them we’re going to beat both of them in March,” Pope said with a chuckle. “You can make me the bad guy.”
No. 1 vs. No. 2
The Champions Classic featured No. 1 Duke against No. 2 Michigan State. Duke won 88-81.
Before the games, Mike Lopresti of NCAA.com pointed out that three of the last six times the No. 1 team lost to the No. 2 team, John Calipari was the coach of No. 1. (Of course, simply being involved in a 1-versus-2 game is a plus.)
Those three games are:
▪ No. 1 UMass losing to No. 2 Kentucky 81-74 in the 1996 Final Four.
▪ No. 1 Memphis losing at home to No. 2 Tennessee 66-62 on Feb. 23, 2008.
▪ No. 1 Kentucky losing to No. 2 Michigan State 78-74 in the Champions Classic on Nov. 12, 2012.
With Duke defeating Michigan State, No. 1 teams have a record of 22-19 against No. 2 teams (using only rankings by The Associated Press).
Incidentally, North Carolina is 7-0 in such games: 4-0 as the No. 1 team, 3-0 as the No. 2 team.
Kentucky is 3-1 as a No. 1 and 2-2 as a No. 2.
Happy in Chicago
Regular readers might recall Rick Music. He is the Cats fan (and former attendee at a Bible study that included Mitch Barnhart) who decided there must be a better way to invest in UK basketball than buying season tickets.
Rather than watching Kentucky thump outclassed opponents in Rupp Arena, Music decided to use the season-ticket money to pay for an annual trip to one of each season’s neutral-site games that features Kentucky against another marquee team.
Last week Music and his wife, Kathy, went to Chicago to watch Kentucky play Kansas.
“Traveling to watch the Cats play good teams, which, sadly, by the way, is about the only way to see them play really good teams, is, without question, the way to spend $$$ on them,” Music wrote in a post-trip email. “We have a great time at these venues.”
After the game against Kansas, Music and his wife wondered how they’d get from the United Center to their downtown hotel. A block or so from the United Center, they were approached by a limo bus driver, who said he had two seats still open. Although wary, they took that option.
“Clearly, the driver of the limo bus could have easily taken advantage of our situation and jacked up the price,” Music wrote in an email. “But he did not. It turns out, as Kathy learned, that he is a Christian, and considers his bus his place to practice his faith. He saw our need and helped us out. He charged us $10 each and dropped us off at the door of our hotel. …
“It was an experience that belies the unsavory reputation of the city of Chicago as a place where crime has taken over. Our experiences in Chicago have all been positive. The people are friendly. The restaurants are top-notch and the amenities are unmatched. Couple that with the excitement of a college basketball event similar to the Final Four, and what’s not to like?”
Music has his next road trip planned: Kentucky at West Virginia on Jan. 27.
ESPN commentator Jay Bilas saluted Michigan State star Miles Bridges as a nice guy as well as talented player.
“An unbelievable teammate,” Bilas said. “A terrific young man.”
Bridges considered entering the 2017 NBA Draft. Ultimately, he chose to return to Michigan State. He said he did not want to play in the G League because he wasn’t ready for the NBA.
“We tend to moralize a lot in this game,” Bilas said. “Somehow, he’s a great kid because he came back. He’s not a great kid because he came back. He’s a great kid, period. And if he had gone pro, he’s a great kid. If he stays three years, he’s a great kid. If he leaves and decides he wants to quit basketball and become a lawyer, he’s a great kid.”
Bilas suggested there was a limit on how much the typical coach appreciates a player being a nice guy.
“If you were to say to (Tom) Izzo right now, ‘Man, you’ve got a bunch of nice kids,’ his first response would be (starts speaking in a gruff voice), ‘Yeah, they’re too nice. They need to get tougher,’” Bilas said.
Michigan State players are known to regularly attend Bible study sessions.
To which ESPN commentator Jay Bilas said, “The teams I played on, we did not go to Bible study.”
The obvious follow-up question: What did Bilas and his Duke teammates in the 1980s study?
After a pause and a smile, Bilas said, “We studied pinball machines late at night. It was a different time back then. We had a lot of fun.”
LSU announced a crowd of 11,856 for its opening game against Alcorn State. That marked the largest crowd for a home opener at the Maravich Center since 1991, which was the start of Shaquille O’Neal’s final season for LSU.
The attendance is a little skewed given that ticket prices started at $1. But with LSU having an 11 a.m. football game the next day, the crowd size was encouraging.
New Coach Will Wade has whipped up enthusiasm with Class of 2018 recruits rated by 247Sports at No. 4 nationally.
Further encouragement came when LSU’s defense got stops on Alcorn State’s first five possessions. Last season LSU gave up 90 or more points in 10 of its last 21 games, and ranked No. 335th in average points allowed (83.0).
Former UK assistant coach Leonard Hamilton will be among three honorees at the 13th annual Dick Vitale Gala, which is May 11 in Sarasota, Fla.
Other honorees will be Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and ESPN’s Mike Greenberg.
The gala raises funds for cancer research. More information is available at dickvitaleonline.com or dickvitalegala.org or by calling 941-350-0580.
To Alex Legion. He turned 29 on Thursday. … To Bret Bearup. He turned 56 on Friday. … To Tom Payne. He turns 67 on Sunday (today). … To Louie Dampier. He turns 73 on Monday.