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Monday, Sept. 29, 10:38 a.m.
Sports

Kentucky, Duke highlight of the early college basketball season

Every year, ESPN celebrates the greatness that is college basketball by showcasing a dozen games, back-to-back, on the network’s many channels, effectively putting those of us who eat, sleep and breathe basketball into a hoops coma.

The tip-off marathon culminates Tuesday, Nov. 1, when two of the nation’s traditional powerhouse programs meet in the State Farm Champions Classic. No. 8 Duke Blue Devils take on No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats in the Georgia Dome, the site of this year’s Final Four. Game time is scheduled for 9:30 p.m.

No. 14 Michigan State battles No. 7 Kansas in the first matchup of the Classic’s doubleheader. These four teams met in Madison Square Garden for the first Champions Classic last year.

Then, No. 2 Kentucky beat No. 11 Kansas 75-65 behind the stellar play of Terrence Jones, who flew to the NBA after Kentucky won its eighth National Championship last April.

Then-No. 6 Duke beat unranked Michigan St. 74-69 behind 26 points from Andre Dawkins. Dawkins will not play after opting to redshirt this season, despite having been in the Blue Devil rotation for much of the last two years.

Duke eventually lost to 15-seeded Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64 after failing to shut down the dangerous C.J. McCollum, who torched the Blue Devils for 30 points to lead the Mountain Hawks in the upset.

This will be the 20th all-time meeting between the two blue-blood programs — the first since 2001 when they squared off in the Jimmy V Classic. The top-ranked Blue Devils took that one in overtime 95-92 behind Jason Williams’ 38 points, but the Wildcats hold an 11-8 edge in the series coming in to Tuesday’s contest.

Duke Player to Watch: Senior Forward Mason Plumlee

The 6-foot-10-inch Plumlee has been an integral part of Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s system the past three seasons and will need to have a huge year if the Blue Devils wish to compete in March and April.

He and fellow senior forward Ryan Kelly provide experience in the frontcourt, which should help Mason’s brother — freshman forward Marshall Plumlee — become acclimated to the pressures of playing for one of the most prestigious programs in the nation.

Plumlee is a gifted athlete despite his size and has impressed NBA scouts with his ability to run the floor, rebound and block shots on the defensive end. He will have to be more of an offensive threat in the low post for Duke to realize its full potential this season, which starts against Kentucky.

Plumlee will likely get more touches down on the low block and with the plethora of shooters the Blue Devils have spacing the floor, could put up some gaudy numbers as the year progresses.

Six-foot-10-inch center Nerlens Noel, the top high school recruit in the country last year, should provide a challenge for Plumlee at both ends of the floor Tuesday night.

If Plumlee can work Noel on the offensive end while anchoring a Duke defense that struggled uncharacteristically last season, it could go a long way towards a win while providing a wake-up call for the rest of the nation: the Blue Devils are back to playing Duke basketball.

Kentucky Player to Watch: Sophomore Point Guard Ryan Harrow

Marquis Teague bolted for the NBA as part of Kentucky’s record-breaking draft class last season. As anyone familiar with the game will tell you, the point guard is the most important position in basketball: the extension of the coach on the floor.

Undoubtedly then, Harrow has some huge expectations coming into this season, his first as a Wildcat.

The 6-foot-2-inch guard transferred to Kentucky after last playing for NC State during the 2010-11 campaign. He averaged 9.3 points, 3.3 assists and 0.8 steals per game while shooting 39 percent from the floor during an injury-plagued season for the Wolfpack.

Harrow was forced to sit out a year due to NCAA Transfer Regulations, but still retains three more years of eligibility and will start at the point from the get-go for a John Calipari squad looking to repeat as National Champions.

The former ACC Rookie of the Week needs to find a way to get the talent around him involved — namely Noel, freshman guard Archie Goodwin, freshman forward Alex Poythress, freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer — even if that means taking a backseat in the scoring department.

Harrow won’t be Teague overnight, but if he can take care of the basketball, play good perimeter defense, distribute the ball to his teammates and hit a clutch bucket every now and again, the Wildcats will be in good shape come tournament time.

Kentucky will go as the man running the show goes, and right now, that’s Harrow.

Prediction: Kentucky tops Duke 83-80 in a shootout

The Wildcats are young, inexperienced and have yet to play together in a game that actually counts. But against a Duke team that is suspect defensively, that might not matter.

If Kentucky’s newcomers can find a way to mesh early and this turns into a scoring contest, the scales will tip in the Wildcats’ favor. Calipari’s team is simply too versatile and gifted at both ends for Duke to keep up.

The Blue Devils can put up points in a hurry, but if the shots aren’t falling and the defense looks anything like last year’s, there won’t be anything Coach K can do to match Kentucky’s raw talent and athleticism.

Both squads have made a habit of breaking games wide open with well-timed runs the past few years. That holds true for this matchup, but expect it to remain tight throughout, with Kentucky pulling out a win in the Georgia Dome.

Regardless of the outcome, Duke-Kentucky will provide some entertaining basketball and a great way to kick off another year of college hoops.

Let the countdown to March begin.