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Game Preview

[Notes: This preview covers the first game of the 2015 State Farm Champions Classic. In addition, the format is somewhat different as some sections, e.g. stats, 4 factors to winning, etc. have been left out due to insufficient data at this point.]

Duke Blue Devils (2-0, 0-0] vs. Kentucky Wildcats (2-0, 0-0]

Tuesday, November 17, 2015 • 7:30 PM • ESPN • Chicago, IL • United Center

By Randy Dunson

1. Team Overviews

DUKEThe top two teams nationally in both wins and winning percentage this decade will square off Tuesday when No. 5/4 Duke takes on No. 2/1 Kentucky in the State Farm Champions Classic. Duke has the best winning percentage (.839) in the NCAA since the start of the 2009-10 season. The Blue Devils have also won 187 games this decade, second-most in the NCAA. Duke is 27-13 in top-five matchups under Mike Krzyzewski, including an 8-2 mark on those occasions since the start of the 2009-10 season.

Duke is 3-1 in the Champions Classic, including a 75-68 win over Kentucky in Atlanta in 2012. Ranked

fifth by the Associated Press, the Blue Devils have been ranked in the AP poll an NCAA best 157 consecutive weeks, the seventh-longest streak in NCAA history. With freshmen Brandon Ingram, Chase Jeter and Luke Kennard joining the fold this year, Duke has a nation-leading seven McDonald’s All-Americans on its 2015-16 roster.

In two games this season, Duke has hassled opponents into an average of 18.0 turnovers per game. The Blue Devils have turned the miscues into 22.5 points per game and an average +13.0 margin in points off turnovers. Behind a combined 10.0 offensive rebounds per game from Amile Jefferson and Marshall

Plumlee, Duke is collecting 44.3 percent of available offensive boards. Grayson Allen scored 54 points in Duke’s first 2 games, one shy of Johnny Dawkins’ program record of 55 in the first two games to open a season (1983-84).

ukUK was picked to win its 47th regular-season SEC championship by the media. The Wildcats lost 85.9 percent of their scoring and 77.3 percent of their rebounding from last year’s Final Four team. Derek Willis scored a career-high 14 points in UK’s win over Albany, earning him his first career start vs. NJIT. Jamal Murray led Kentucky vs. Albany with 19 points, eight assists, and three steals. Against NJIT, Skal Labissiere led all scorers with 26 points. He leads UK in scoring with a 17.5 average. Kentucky’s plus-31 rebounding margin vs. NJIT was its highest of the Coach Cal era

Tuesday’s matchup with Duke will take place in the annual Champions Classic, held this year in Chicago’s United Center at 7:30 PM. Both teams come into the game having tallied a pair of blowout wins over the weekend. Kentucky is ranked No. 2 in both polls, Duke No. 5 by the Associated Press and No. 4 by coaches.

The game, based on brand names alone, will draw a lot of interest. UK fans aren’t shy about making their feeling about the Blue Devils known and the two teams share a long history, playing five games against each other in the NCAA Sweet 16 or later.

The history (see head-to-head), however, is not recent. Though UK and Duke nearly met in last year’s national championship game, they have played only once since 2001. That means the young Cats know little of The Shot or the Comeback Cats.

“(Mike Krzyzewski) is mixing up their defense like I’ve never seen them, which is they’re playing 1-3-1, a 2-3, a 1-2-2, a 1-2-2 press,” head coach John Calipari said. “Sometimes fakes, sometimes they come. They spread out a 1-3-1. He is trying everything to see if he figures out what he likes for the team. I imagine they’ll do it in the game.”

There might be some guesswork about what UK and Duke will do with young rosters, but one thing Calipari sees as a certainty is that both teams will be aggressive attacking the basket. That approach makes sense considering the makeup of both rosters.

UK’s offense is built around the talents of dynamic guards Ulis, Jamal Murray, and Isaiah Briscoe, while Duke relies on Grayson Allen, Derryck Thornton, Matt Jones, and Luke Kennard in much the same way. Allen is averaging 27 points, four rebounds, and four assists two games into his sophomore campaign.

The game might be dictated by perimeter play, but do not ignore the interior. UK might have the on-paper advantage with Southeastern Conference Co-Freshman of the Week Skal Labissiere, but he is in for a test. “Skal will have trouble with (Marshall) Plumlee,” Calipari said. “Plays very physical. It’s going to be a challenge for him. This is a grit game, a grind-it game. They do a great job of wedging on rebounds. When they shoot the ball, they will wedge you all the way under to the cheerleaders. So, if you’re not ready to fight, they’re going to get offensive rebounds”

Another potential X-Factor is the matchup on the wing, where Duke uses 6-foot-9 freshman Brandon Ingram. UK, meanwhile, has primarily played a three-guard lineup or gone with 6-foot-9 junior Derek Willis. “Well, obviously I know him pretty well,” Calipari said of Ingram. “We recruited him. Terrific player. Long, active, can score the ball. Derek will probably be a pretty good matchup for him. Two guys that size and mobile. Both can score, so that could be a matchup that would be a good thing for us.”

2. Last Time Out


No. 5 Duke got together for a team meeting to talk about the flaws in its lopsided season-opening victory. Then the Blue Devils came out for Game 2 and managed an even bigger rout of Bryant.

Grayson Allen had a career-high 28 points, Matt Jones scored all of his career-best 19 in the first half, and Duke beat Bryant 113-75 on Saturday night in the 2K Classic.

Freshman Brandon Ingram had 21 points to help the Blue Devils (2-0) earn their second lopsided win in as many nights. Amile Jefferson had 11 points and 11 rebounds in his second straight double-double, and freshman Luke Kennard added 11 points for the reigning national champions.

They never trailed, shot 53 percent, hit 13 3-pointers, forced 19 turnovers and turned them into 24 points.

They picked up easy wins against Siena and Bryant on consecutive nights to start the season, trailing for a total of 10 seconds so far. But Duke admitted it wasn’t at its best against the Saints, and coach Mike Krzyzewski said the team ”had a tough feedback tape for about an hour” earlier Saturday morning.

”Our freshmen, I thought, played with much better enthusiasm and more decisiveness than they did” against Siena, Krzyzewski said.

Jones finished 7 of 9 from the field, hit five of Duke’s eight 3-pointers in the first half, had his career high by the break and only played 3 minutes in the second half as a precaution, Krzyzewski said. Jones dealt with a groin injury in the preseason. His previous high of 17 points was set against Wake Forest last March in the home finale. A role player on the team that captured the program’s fifth national title last spring, Jones has become a key scoring threat on a new-look Duke team that lost three freshmen to the first round of the NBA draft and needs its perimeter to provide the scoring punch.

Three players – Jones, Allen and Ingram – cracked double figures by halftime. The Blue Devils scored on 14 of 15 possessions midway through the half to push the lead into double figures to stay, then took a 20-point lead on Allen’s free throw with 2:09 left in the half.

Hunter Ware scored a career-high 24 points to lead Bryant (0-1). ”To be able to score 75 points against a team the caliber of Duke is a good sign for us,” coach Tim O’Shea said.


Skal Labissiere knew his second game with No. 2 Kentucky had to be better than his debut. The 6-foot-11 freshman forward followed through with an offensive performance that the New Jersey Insitute of Technology (NJIT) couldn’t stop no matter where he got the ball. Labissiere scored 26 points, fellow freshman Isaiah Briscoe had a double-double and Kentucky ran away from NJIT 87-57 on Saturday for its second win in as many nights.

Seeking a strong tune-up with Tuesday night’s showdown looming against defending national champion and fifth-ranked Duke, the Wildcats (2-0) succeeded behind a dominant effort by the 6-foot-11 Labissiere who made 10 of 12 shots from the field and all six free throws to nearly triple his scoring from the previous night against Albany.

After missing the opener with a bruised knee Isaiah Briscoe debuted with a team-high 12 rebounds along with 11 points. Derek Willis added 11 points and Marcus Lee had 10 as Kentucky won the first meeting between the schools. Like Labissiere, Briscoe wanted to enjoy his time on the court and showed it on defense with 11 rebounds. His presence provided a more aggressive look for the Wildcats that paid off on both ends of the court and pleased Calipari.

NJIT (0-1) led twice early before being overwhelmed by the taller Wildcats, who dominated the boards 54-23 and held the Highlanders to 31 percent shooting. Damon Lynn scored 19 points, Ky Howard added 13 and Tim Coleman had 10 for the Highlanders. Much like Albany the night before, NJIT was unfazed by Kentucky’s size and aura as it ran its Princeton offense to perfection early while building its only leads. Lynn had the hot hand from outside with three 3-pointers, while his teammates executed the back-door cuts and motion that the scheme is known for.

3. Head-to-Head

Duke holds a 7-1 lead in the overall series dating back to the first game played in 1979. With the exception of two games all have been relatively close. Of course, no one will ever forget “the shot” in the 1992 Regionals, with Duke winning 104-103.

4. Key Points to Consider

First, a few points regarding both team’s overall profile at this point:


  • Very methodical on offense
  • Struggles offensively
  • Hard to score against
  • Defends lay-ups and jumpers well


  • Very methodical on offense
  • Has difficulty scoring baskets
  • Stingy defense
  • Defends lay-ups and jumpers well

Now, a few key points to consider (refer to the Endgame). These may often carry over to future games but keys specific to a current opponent will always be mentioned.

  • Backourt (Still No True PG for Duke)
    • Allen & Jones seem to be taking turns but this team desperatelyu needs a true floor leader as the likes of a Quinn Cook or Tyus Jones
    • I am still looking for Thornton to work his way into this spot
  • Backcourt (Overall)
    • Duke will need its backcourt to play superbly on the perimeter
    • Allen, Jones, Kennard, & Thornton will have their hands full keeping the Kentucky guards in front of them
    • As noted in the Endgame. Jamal Murray is a player that is already an elite athlete as well as a deadly shooter
      • Playing him honest is crucial as he has the ability to blow by but given an inch he can stroke the long-range jumper with ease
  • Frontcourt (Substitutions)
    • Duke needs to find someone who can come in & spell them
    • Ingram can move to the 4 spot or more minutes for Jeter
    • The X-Factor continues to be Obi as it appears that he has been relegated to the bench for now
  • Frontcourt (Overall)
    • Need to do a good job controlling the boards in this game
    • Staying out of foul trouble & being physical to offset some of Duke’s youth will also be key
    • Will be interesting to see who Coach K and company will use on Skal Labissiere
      • Most likely a combo Marshall & Amile to try to keep the freshmen phenom in check
      • Plumlee can provide a physically dominating presence on Skal on the inside (hopefully) and Amile may have the foot speed to keep Skal out on the perimeter

5. Endgame

The first must-see game of the 2015-16 college basketball season comes Tuesday night when Duke (2-0) and Kentucky (2-0) meet in the Champions Classic in Chicago. This is the fifth year of the four-team event, with Duke holding the best record among the participants at 3-1, which includes a 75-68 victory over Kentucky in 2012. That was the last time the Blue Devils and Wildcats clashed, and the hope was they would meet in the 2015 NCAA title game, but Kentucky’s loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four prevented that.

What will take the court at the United Center for each team will be vastly different from what would have been in the mix seven months ago. That’s because Duke and Kentucky lost a combined 11 key players to either graduation or the NBA draft, and each replaced those departures with top-notch recruiting classes.

Both Duke and Kentucky have bulldozed their first two opponents, Duke winning by an average of 28 points and Kentucky by 21.5. Each has gotten a strong mix of contributions from both newcomers and veterans, but Kentucky’s performance has looked more consistent to this point. Duke has been more reliant on its returners than originally expected, but in a game like this it will need to get help from its entire lineup to succeed.

We will break down each team’s backcourts, frontcourts, benches and make a decision of who comes away with a win.


Duke lost both of its point guards from last season in Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, while Kentucky saw Andrew Harrison turn pro. Each team has added promising new players at this position in Derryck Thornton (Duke) and Isaiah Briscoe (Kentucky).

Briscoe missed Kentucky’s first game with a bruised knee, but he had 11 points and 12 rebounds in the win over NJIT on Saturday. Duke’s Thornton has averaged 4.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in two games—both times off the bench.

Each of these freshmen is still coming along, and as a result, neither has started. Briscoe had to play some of his minutes at the 2-guard because of how well sophomore Tyler Ulis has looked at the point, while Duke has turned to junior Matt Jones to handle the position at the outset and has also included sophomore Grayson Allen in the mix. Jones has been playing through a groin injury but has looked great, making six of his 10 three-pointers and shooting 11-of-17 overall.

Of the players who are getting used at the 1, Kentucky has done it so far with 1s who are more comfortable at the position as 1s who are in there to facilitate the offense. Duke is trying to get more of its scorers onto the court, and as a result, only 26 of 69 made field goals have been assisted so far.

There might be only a few games this season that will have as many pure shooters involved as this one, as both Duke and Kentucky feature numerous players who are lights-out from all over the court.

As mentioned before, Duke has been using Matt Jones at the 1 a lot to get his shooting acumen on the court, since playing him at the 2 would mean limiting what sophomore Grayson Allen could contribute. Allen, who came alive during last year’s Final Four for the Blue Devils, has averaged 27 points (including a career-high 28 against Bryant) on 51.6 percent shooting.

A lot of what Allen has done has been at the rim, and that’s opened things up for Duke’s other shooters outside. Jones has benefited from this, as has freshman Luke Kennard, who has made nine of 17 field goals in two games.

On Kentucky, the departure of Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker hasn’t been felt yet, since freshmen Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray haven’t been shy about taking shots. Murray is only 3-of-15 from outside so far, but his shot should come with further repetitions.

The true SG (2) position is the closest matchup at any position on the court, and Duke’s experience gives it the edge.


The frontcourts are different for both Duke and Kentucky this season compared to 2014-15. For Kentucky, it’s because of the sheer quantity of available players, while in Duke’s case, it’s a matter of quality.

The Wildcats lost Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns, a quartet that combined to produce 34.3 points, 22.9 rebounds and 5.3 blocks per game as part of the platoon system that John Calipari had in place. They basically shared the 4 and 5 spots—interchangeable parts—but this year, the position is held almost exclusively by freshman Skal Labissiere.

One team has its most promising freshman holding down the 3, while the other has already done some mixing and matching at the position, including giving a lot of minutes to a mostly forgotten upperclassman. Duke’s Brandon Ingram has been by far the best of the team’s first-year players, showing off the ability to play anywhere from the 1 to the 4 during exhibition play and in the first two regular-season games. His long and lean body hasn’t been tested on the inside, but when away from the basket, he’s been a deadly matchup that hasn’t been contained.

Much the same could be said about Kentucky’s most productive wing to this point, though it was nowhere near as expected. Derek Willis, a 6’9″ junior who had all of 44 points in mop-up duty in his first two seasons with the Wildcats, already has 25 points this year. He got his first career start on Saturday after scoring 14 points off the bench, and he’s 8-of-12 from the field, including 5-of-9 on three-pointers.

Charles Matthews, another freshman, played the 3 in the season opener, but Willis was more effective and might have played his way into the regular rotation. But matched up against Ingram, he’s apt to struggle.

Labissiere has responded with 35 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in his two games, including a 26-point effort last time out against NJIT.

For Duke, Amile Jefferson began at the 4 and then eventually became a reserve once Justise Winslow slid from the 3 to the 4 with ease. Winslow is in the NBA now, so Jefferson has taken back that position for his senior year, though during the offseason, this didn’t seem to be the plan.

Freshman Chase Jeter was supposed to be the heir apparent at the 4, but he’s struggled so far and hasn’t seen much time on the court. He’ll improve as the season goes on, but Kentucky isn’t the opponent for him to learn against.

As a result, the Labissiere-Jefferson matchup could be the most lopsided of the game.

The center position has become obsolete with many programs, either because they don’t have a true back-to-the-basket player, or they are better served getting more athletic players on the court. Kentucky and Duke could go this route, but each has gone with a true center so far.

Duke has given senior Marshall Plumlee the start in both games this year, and though the 7-footer isn’t lighting up the scoreboard, his 24 minutes per game have been valuable. So much so that he is probably playing more than the Blue Devils would like, but with Jeter yet to do much at the 4 and Rice transfer Sean Obi almost nonexistent to this point, Plumlee is the main option.

For Kentucky, Marcus Lee is getting his chance to play on a regular basis after two seasons at the bottom of the rotation. He was part of the platoon in 2015-16 but was often the first one dropped out of the mix as the game moved on, though as a junior, he’s contributed 11 points and eight rebounds per game while shooting 60 percent.

The Wildcats have also given minutes to Australian freshman Isaac Humphries, though Lee is getting the bulk of the work and has been more of a factor to this point than Plumlee.


Because of the nature of the opponents they’ve faced, both Duke and Kentucky have been quite liberal with their substitutions to this point in the 2015-16 season. This should decrease as the season goes on, and in a game as big as Tuesday’s matchup, the likelihood of giving minutes to those far down the bench is minimal.

But each team needs to sub to keep its starters fresh and to help create mismatches when the opponent sits a player or two.

Kentucky isn’t as deep as in 2014-15 when it needed to platoon its top 10 players, but it’s pretty close, with at least eight players likely to get 10 or more minutes against Duke. For the Blue Devils, they figure to turn to the backups much more than last season (simply because they have more available players than a year ago), but the confidence Mike Krzyzewski has in those players isn’t as high as what Calipari has.

The emergence of Derek Willis for Kentucky has boosted his team’s reserves, while Duke hasn’t had major contributions from the bench to this point.


As Kentucky’s Champions Classic game from 2014 showed us, even the most promising teams can fall

flat in big early matchups. The Wildcats won 72-40 against a highly ranked Kansas team that would go on to win its 11th consecutive Big 12 title later in the year.

Someone has to lose this game and thus fall to 2-1—after neither lost a game until January or later last year. The result won’t matter as much as how the winner builds off the game and how the team on the losing end responds to what went wrong.

In fact, both teams are likely to expose flaws in the other’s game plan, which will make how each fares next time out—Duke plays VCU on Friday in New York City, while Kentucky returns home the same day to face Wright State—more important than anything else.

The overall lack of experience on each roster puts this game in the hands of the freshmen, from whom Kentucky has gotten more out of to this point. That group should be the impetus for a victory over the Blue Devils, though I feel that the Duke freshmen will rise to the occasion. Duke slips by 75-72.

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