The vast majority of college football teams kick off their respective seasons in less than two weeks, yet around here there might be much more interest in a season opener that is still nearly three months away.
Sport: College basketball.
Game: Kentucky vs. Duke.
Event: The Champions Classic, Nov. 6, in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
We base this safe assumption on a number of factors, starting with (a) it’s basketball, (b) it’s UK and Duke, powerhouse programs who share a notable history, (c) both are expected to be top contenders for the 2018-19 title — pipe down Kansas, we haven’t forgotten the Jayhawks — and (d) both whetted our appetites by looking out of this world when they traveled out of this country for preseason tune-ups.
First, Kentucky blasted through the Bahamas, showing remarkable chemistry for a young team with a mere 10 practices under its belt on the way to a four-game sweep of exhibitions on Paradise Island.
Then last week, Duke crushed it in Canada, romping through three exhibition games in which the Blue Devils showcased their dynamic freshmen duo, one a high-scoring Canadian, the other a unique Charles Barkley-esque power forward.
Let’s start with the Cats. My top television takeaway from that quartet of games in the Imperial Ballroom of the Atlantis concerned basketball IQ. At least a couple of John Calipari’s recent teams could be judged lacking in that regard. Not all, but some of the most athletic, talented players were still learning the nuances of the game. (They are/were young.)
That doesn’t look to be a problem this year. Based on the small sample size, the upcoming Cats look to be a team that knows how to pass the basketball. Teammates anticipated where other teammates were going to be. Deliveries were on time and on target. Unselfishness carried the day. If I’m Calipari, that would have pleased me most.
The head coach also looks to have just the right amount of depth. No platoons, thank goodness. But the roster is deep enough for competitive practices and alternative game options in case of foul trouble, slumps, etc. And that’s with us getting just a short snippet of EJ Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 power forward/center who missed three of the four games because of a back problem.
As for Duke, the Blue Devils were more about individuals than team north of the border. To be fair, Mike Krzyzewski didn’t have his entire team. Heralded freshmen Tre Jones (hip) and Cameron Reddish (groin) both sat out the trip to nurse injuries. And sophomore Alex O’Connell suffered a broken eye socket in the first exhibition game.
No big deal, not when R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson were more than picking up the slack. Barrett, a 6-7 small forward from Ontario, was the No. 1 player in Rivals’ class of 2018 rankings. Williamson, the 6-foot-6, 285-pound man-child from Spartanburg, S.C., was ranked fifth by Rivals.
Barrett merely averaged 30.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and five assists over the three games. He scored 34 points in Duke’s opening-game win. He topped that with 35 in a 36-point romp two nights later. Barrett didn’t shoot particularly well from three-point range (6-of-21), but made nearly 57 percent of his attempts inside the arc.
Though Williamson did most of his work around the rim, the big man can really run the floor. Most of the Duke highlights involved Williamson throwing down ridiculous jams off Duke fast breaks. He scored 29, 24 and 36 points in the three games with a total of 34 rebounds. He made 64.5 percent of his shots from the floor.
OK, OK, neither the Cats nor the Blue Devils played the best of competition. The official start of practice is a couple of months away. And, once again, both teams are going to rely on instant impact freshmen who have yet to play in an official college game.
Plus, it’s football season.
Still, when it’s Kentucky-Duke basketball, it’s never too early to look ahead.