<
>

Looking ahead to Kentucky-Duke, the game that wasn't but now is

Tyler Ulis is back to help guide another talented recruiting class at Kentucky. Jeff Blake/USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: The non-conference schedules have been released, which means it’s time to identify the biggest games of the season. There are some matchups that simply can’t be missed. Today: Kentucky versus Duke.

Kentucky versus Duke ... the game that could have been, were it not for Wisconsin.

This was the heavyweight matchup most everyone anticipated in the national championship, but it, along with Kentucky’s quest for perfection, were derailed by the Badgers.

The Champions Classic tilt on Nov. 17 in Chicago doesn’t qualify as a redo. Neither roster looks anything like it did back in April, but it’s still Kentucky versus Duke, and that always counts for something.

And frankly the two programs have turned up the heat on the rivalry in recent years. It’s no longer just about tradition and national championships won, but players signed, too. Depending on who you ask, either Duke or Kentucky has signed the best recruiting class in each of the past two years.

Mike Krzyzewski has gone from dipping his toe into the one-and-done waters to immersing himself, emerging with his fifth national championship this season. Whether you consider the switch good, bad or indifferent, there’s no question Krzyzewski, and in turn Duke, have been rejuvenated and revitalized by a twist in how the Blue Devils recruit.

Just three Blue Devils left early for the NBA compared to Kentucky’s seven, but the "succeed and proceed" mantra no longer pertains just to the Wildcats.

Best reason to watch: Not sure there’s a better reason than because it’s Duke versus Kentucky. This will be just the second meeting between the two schools since 2001, the only other coming three years ago in the Champions Classic in Atlanta.

It’s hard to make any bold proclamations off a game in November (though Kentucky’s stomping of Kansas more or less stood up last season) but it seems safe to say fans will be watching a lot of future NBA lottery picks here.

From Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray in Kentucky uniforms to Brandon Ingram, Derryck Thornton Chase Jeter and Luke Kennard in Duke colors, this game features some top-notch talent.

It’s always interesting, too, to watch young players early. Some dominate right away -- Jahlil Okafor scored 17 against Michigan State in the Champions Classic a year ago. And some only tease us with what’s to come. Karl-Anthony Towns put up nine points and eight rebounds in a romp against Kansas. Yet Towns was the top pick come April, not Okafor.

Players to watch: The freshman, of course, will get all of the attention and understandably so, but in this game, the upperclassmen might be even more intriguing and impactful.

The most important player for Kentucky in this game and perhaps all season could very well be point guard Tyler Ulis. The de facto starter a year ago, Ulis proved to be the perfect floor general for the young Wildcats. Now there’s no question this is his team to run. The game inside the game between Ulis and Thornton ought to be especially interesting.

But the real leader of this team ought to be Alex Poythress. He’s an unexpected senior, opting to stay for his junior season to pursue a national championship only to be derailed before the year began with a torn ACL. Upperclassmen, as we all know, are a rarity in Lexington, especially with the combination of experience and talent that Poythress has, and it will be interesting to see how he impacts the Cats.

Speaking of impact: Grayson Allen. The freshman was an adrenaline shot out of nowhere in the title game against Wisconsin, scoring eight consecutive points and 16 in all to help the Blue Devils overcome the Badgers. But that role as off-the-bench spark plug is gone and Allen will have to fill a much bigger need for Duke this year. Is he ready? A game against Kentucky ought to be a pretty good indicator.

Never too early to predict a winner ... So: I waffled back and forth on this one since both teams are so similar in the most critical ways. Though Duke lost fewer players than Kentucky body for body, the Blue Devils who opted for the NBA (not to mention the graduation of Quinn Cook) leave just as big of a void as the hole left by the mass Wildcat exodus.

But then again, both teams essentially reloaded, replacing one group of talented freshmen with the next.

So how do you pick a winner?

To me, the great separator is experience. It almost always is in college basketball, especially today when so many teams are sharing the talent pool. In this game, Duke has just a little bit more.

Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee, Matt Jones and Allen all have logged significant playing time for the Blue Devils over the years. Jefferson and Plumlee are actual seniors, not seniors by default or circumstance and Jones is a junior. There is no match for that, especially in the early part of the season when teams are still trying to find their chemistry.

So that’s a long-winded way of saying that the pick here is Duke.