ATLANTA -- Quick thoughts on No. 9 Duke’s 75-68 win over No. 3 Kentucky in the Champions Classic ...
Overview: Like death and taxes, Duke-Kentucky is something you can count on. It’s always good -- even when Christian Laettner’s lone involvement is at a charity function. Following on the heels of Michigan State’s high-energy win against Kansas, the Blue Devils and Wildcats put up a pretty sweet nightcap. Duke looked like it had the game in hand, up 14 points midway through the second half. Of course it didn’t. This is Duke-Kentucky and the game, along with a raucous atmosphere -- the players might not dislike one another, but the fans aren’t necessarily chummy -- went back to barn burner in an instant.
It’s always dangerous to draw too many conclusions from a game in November. There’s just too much time left in the season. But the Wildcats' ability to come back -- on the heels of their ability to survive against Maryland -- shows that this group might be uniquely special like last year’s team. No, Kentucky didn’t win. But sometimes there’s just as much to be gleaned in a loss. Freshmen aren’t supposed to have this sort of poise.
Meanwhile, a Duke team with more than a few question marks dogging it this season answered a few questions, too. The Blue Devils have a potential breakout scorer in Rasheed Sulaimon, and Mason Plumlee's maturity -- he played with four fouls for much of the second half -- bodes well for Duke this season. Most obvious, the Devils simply are a better team with Seth Curry on the floor.
Turning point: With Mason Plumlee on the bench, the Blue Devils defied logic, going on an 11-5 run, spearheaded by Sulaimon’s huge 3-pointer and the surprise contribution of Josh Hairston. Duke eventually built its lead to as many as 14, making it 58-44. The Blue Devils would need all of that room and then some, as UK came roaring back. The dagger shot came from Curry. With the lead at just three, Curry drove the right side of the lane, stopped and scooped in a layup in traffic, making it 68-63.
Key player: With Plumlee dogged by foul trouble, it was up to Curry -- just back from injury -- to do the work. He did. Curry scored 19 points, including a pivotal scoop layup, to give Duke a five-point cushion with just more than a minute to play.
Key stat: 6. That’s how many 3-pointers Sulaimon and Curry combined for (in 12 attempts). Let’s face it: Duke isn’t a mystery novel. The Blue Devils like to shoot 3s, and they win when they make 3s. Duke hit 8 of 18 in this game, with those two guys responsible for the bulk of them.
Miscellaneous: Atlanta has to be happy with the turnout here. The lower levels were packed, the crowds were loud. Truth be told, if it’s this good in April for the Final Four, that would be impressive.
What's next: In its lead-up to the Battle 4 Atlantis tourney, Duke hosts Florida Gulf Coast before departing for the Bahamas on Nov. 22. Lest anyone thinks FGCU is a cakewalk, take note: The Eagles already have one ACC victim, upsetting Miami on Tuesday. Meanwhile, after two tough games, Kentucky downshifts a little bit, hosting Lafayette on Friday.