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Five things to watch as Duke and Kentucky meet on opening night

Duke co-captains talk about freshman Zion Williamson

Duke will test out their freshmen laden squad as they open the regular season against perennial power Kentucky Tuesday night
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Duke will test out their freshmen laden squad as they open the regular season against perennial power Kentucky Tuesday night

There’s no more easing into the college basketball season, at least not for Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas.

For the first time, the Champions Classic doubleheader that began in 2011 will be the season-opening games for these four blue bloods of the sport.

This year’s pairings include a game between No. 4 Duke and No. 2 Kentucky that will be America’s introduction to two groups of top freshmen and soon-to-be NBA draft picks.

No. 10 Michigan State and No. 1 Kansas will play at 7 p.m. Tuesday; the freshmen-led Blue Devils and Wildcats follow at 9:30 p.m. from Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Duke and Kentucky, more than any other teams, secure more one-and-done players than the rest of the country, annually jockeying for the top two positions in the national recruiting rankings.

The Blue Devils hauled in the most talent during the offseason, welcoming three of the top five players in the class: forwards R.J. Barrett (6-7, 202 pounds), Cameron Reddish (6-8, 219 pounds) and Zion Williamson (6-7, 285 pounds). Another five-star player, 6-2, 183-pound freshman point guard Tre Jones (No. 15 in the class), is the player who will make things go.

Kentucky also welcomed a quartet of five-star players, led by 6-10 power forward E.J. Montgomery, the No. 9 player in the class. Guard Ashton Hagans (No. 12), small forward Keldon Johnson (No. 13) and guard Immanuel Quickley (No. 22) join him in a stellar class.

So that’s eight of the nation’s top 22 recruits, a little more than a third, taking the court together on the first night of the season.

Both teams are expected to make a run to the Final Four, and by then the coaches will look back at this game comment about how the team’s have changed with game experience.

But for this first meeting, there’s plenty to ponder. Here are five things to watch for when the Blue Devils and Wildcats tangle on Tuesday night:

1. The overheated scoreboard

The players change annually but Duke and Kentucky always find a way to be among the top teams in the country when it comes to scoring efficiently.

Duke has been in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s national offensive efficiency rankings in each of the past 10 seasons. Kentucky’s had a few more ups and downs, and was No. 24 nationally last season.

But the three previous seasons, Kentucky was No. 12, No. 5 and No. 6.

Chances are good this game will be decided by two teams scoring in the 80s.

Williamson, Barrett and Reddish all stand between 6-6 and 6-8 and have the athleticism and versatility to score from anywhere on the court. Kentucky’s Johnson fits in that category, too, plus the Wildcats have the 6-10 Montgomery to make problems inside for Duke.

2. The experience factor

For all the talented players making their college debuts, a handful of veterans (mostly on the Kentucky side) figure to play a major factor in this game.

The Wildcats landed Reid Travis as a graduate transfer from Stanford in the offseason. The 6-8, 238-pound Travis was a first-team, all-Pac 12 player a season ago when he averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.

P.J. Washington stayed at Kentucky for his sophomore season after initially declaring for the NBA draft. The 6-8, 228-pound forward averaged 10.8 points per game as a freshman, scoring in double figures in 11 of the Wildcats’ last 12 games.

Those two experienced players are both on the preseason watch list for the Naismith Award as national player of the year. Duke’s freshmen Reddish, Barrett and Williamson are also on the list.

In its two exhibition games this year, Duke started four freshmen along with junior center Marques Bolden. Two other juniors, team captains forward Javin DeLaurier and forward Jack White, are also key parts of Duke’s playing rotation. But none of those players have the experience or production that Travis and Washington have churned out during their college careers.

Should these teams meet again in the NCAA tournament, this experience factor will be mitigated by a season full of games.

But, on this first night of the season, Travis and Washington could loom large.

3. Who will defend best?

Duke has, for the most part, struggled to implement strong defensive teams during its one-and-done era.

While the 2015 NCAA championship team finished No. 11 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings, the Blue Devils plummeted to No. 86 and No. 47 over the next two seasons. Duke bounced back to No. 9 last season after coach Mike Krzyzewski abandoned his strong man-to-man roots to play zone.

Krzyzewski insists this season’s team can be an effective defensive squad playing man-to-man. That, of course, remains to be seen. Kentucky certainly has the athletes to be effective against Duke in man-to-man sets.

Looking at this from the opposite viewpoint, Kentucky coach John Calipari has his Wildcats playing man-to-man and they will have to be strong to stop Duke’s 5-out motion offense. The Blue Devils are matchup nightmares all over the court. A zone defense could offset that but Calipari has shown no indication he’ll take that route on opening night.

4. How many highlight reel dunks will Zion Williamson have?

The 6-7, 285-pound Williamson was a YouTube and Instagram sensation before he even signed with Duke because of his monster dunks he threw down as a prep phenom at Spartanburg Day in South Carolina.

He’s going to be a regular feature on highlight shows all season. ESPN is certainly anticipating that viewers will watch the game instead of election results to see what Williamson will do.

Duke’s offense produced frequent lob dunks, with Williamson often on the receiving end of the long passes, during its exhibition wins over Virginia Union and Ferris State.

5. Is Reddish ready?

Williamson and Barrett have been Duke’s top scorers through its five exhibition games, including three during an August foreign tour of Canada.

Reddish has been mostly overshadowed by the two due to injuries. He didn’t play in the three games in Canada due to a groin muscle injury. He started and played against Virginia Union and Ferris State, but he did so with a fractured rib suffered in an October practice.

Reddish is said to have a terrific all-around game which includes strong 3-point shooting. He made just 5 of 16 combined against Virginia Union and Ferris State. The injury is no doubt a factor, as Reddish even admitted.

Duke last played on Oct. 27. With 10 days of healing, perhaps Reddish will be able to show more of the game that made him the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2018 class.

No. 4 Duke vs. No. 2 Kentucky

When: 9:30 p.m., Tuesday

What: Champions Classic in Indianapolis

TV: ESPN

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