Kansas has not begun a season 0-2 since 1972-73, but after a (somewhat unlucky) season opening loss to Indiana, a trek spanning 5,000 miles and 4 time zones, and a date with the nation’s best team, Kansas is staring 0-2 straight in the face.
Duke will be without Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, and Marques Bolden, so whichever team does lose this one will have a convenient excuse (although a Kansas win will probably be given less weight by the selection committee come March), but even with one team shorthanded and the other gassed due to travel, I still think we will be watching the two best teams in America close out the Champions Classic.
If this were a bit later in the season, we would REALLY have ourselves a matchup: Duke has ranked in the top 10 in offense nationally in the last 8 seasons, while the Jayhawks have ranked in the top 10 defensively in 9 of the last 11 seasons. The difference is Duke has just two top 20 defenses in the last 8 seasons, while Kansas has 5 top 10 offenses in the last 10 seasons.
This year’s Duke team should be a bit better defensively with Amile Jefferson back and Chase Jeter looking good so far, but offense is where this team will win games. Duke is shooting 37 percent from three and 56 percent from two so far (sample size and schedule strength caveats apply of course) and are a team who can beat you in a bunch of different ways. For example, last year Duke took roughly 40 percent of its shots from deep, shot 38.5 percent from three, and turned it over fewer than all but 4 teams in the nation. With the three big men out, I assume Duke will approach the game in a similar fashion, starting with...
Players to Watch
Grayson Allen - Jr Guard
Allen was named national preseason player of the year by multiple publications, and it is easy to see why. He posted a 124.9 offensive rating on a 26.1 usage rate, he shot 50 percent from two, and 41 percent from three. Allen isn’t much of a passer or rebounder (or defender) but when you take as many shots as he does and make as many of them as he does, he has to be at the top of the list in terms of guys Kansas will need to keep tabs on tonight.
Luke Kennard - So Guard
A bit of a dark horse, I think Kennard is in for a big year. He was a dynamite scorer in high school, and continued that once he got going at Duke. He ranked 3rd in the ACC in offensive rating, with a 54.5 percent eFG in league play, as well as a 7.8 turnover rate in league play. Even scarier is the fact that Kennard shot just 32 percent from deep last season. That will get better this year, and so will he.
Amile Jefferson - Sr Forward
Granted an extra year of eligibility due to an injury, Jefferson is Duke’s answer to Landen Lucas. He shoots in the mid 60 percent range from two (better than Lucas), has been a very good rebounder over the course of his career (though not as good as Lucas), and is nearly as good as Lucas defensively. It’s no surprise then that I think his return is huge for the Blue Devils this season.
Things To Watch
- Backcourt battle - Allen, Kennard, and Frank Jackson are maybe the only backcourt in the country that can match KU’s. Mason and Graham are better defensively, but it might not matter with the offensive talent on the other side. The best way to stop them might be to force Allen to get into foul trouble.
- Will Duke Stay Hot From Three? - Indiana was an astounding 15-31 (and made a ton of tough looks), and needed every bit of them. Duke won’t need to be that hot, but with the big men out, they probably will need to make quite a few threes in order to score enough to win.
- KU’s defensive rotations - The defensive rotations and closeouts often looked slow and disorganized on Friday. Some of that is because it was the first game, but I have a theory that some of it was also because the floor was incredibly slippery, which naturally will cause guys to move slower on defense (Indiana wasn’t very good on closeouts/rotations either but they are generally poor defensively so who knows if it was due to the floor or not.) With so many options for Duke, the Jayhawks will have to be able to get out to shooters and recover on drivers.
I have said it on twitter about a thousand times, but having to travel this far (not just from Hawaii to NYC, but compounding that on top of the Kansas to Hawaii trip) and having to traverse so many time zones just spells doom. They might start out fine, but I expect to see Kansas die in the 2nd half, especially considering how many minutes guys played on Friday. Couple that with Duke being a very good team and I am taking the Blue Devils 87-77.