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Cats set to open the season against Duke in loaded Champions Classic

Kentucky freshman guard Tyler Herro and the Wildcats will open the season against Duke Tuesday night in the State Farm Champions Classic at Indianapolis. (Kentucky Today, Tammie Brown)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

It’s not the Final Four, but it’s close enough.

Kentucky will be among four teams competing in the State Farm Champions Classic Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to open the season. In the first game, top-ranked Kansas takes on No. 10 Michigan State, followed by the second-ranked Wildcats and No. 4 Duke.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the Wildcats are anxious to open the season, especially against a high-caliber opponent such as the Blue Devils.

“I think they’re all excited about playing it,” Calipari said. “(Duke has) unbelievable talent, unbelievable team. We already know what kind of coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) is. So where are we right now? I have no idea, to be honest with you. I have no idea. This will be one where hopefully a couple guys stand out. We’ve had it before in these events where certain guys just went – and you got to see them.”

Kentucky and Duke have met twice in the prestigious event and split both games. Kentucky defeated Duke 74-63 in 2015 at Chicago, while the Wildcats won 75-68 in Atlanta six years ago. Overall, Duke has won seven of the last nine games between the two rivals.

Calipari knows the opener won’t be an easy task and is anxious to see how his team competes against one of the top five teams in the nation. Calipari also knows it will be a learning experience his team can build on going into the rest of the regular season.

“If you win it’s huge,” Calipari said. “If you lose you just put it in the rearview mirror, learn from it and go on to the next game. But it’ll hold for any of the teams that win this thing. The two teams that win, it’ll hold through whatever. It’ll give you a cushion as you go forward, but it’s just, it’s early.”

Calipari pointed to Kentucky’s loss to UCLA during the regular season two years ago, but the Wildcats avenged the loss with a win in the NCAA Tournament three months later.

“I mean, would you rather have won this one or the last one? I’d rather have won the last one,” he said. “It’s just every year it is, look, we don’t want to be playing in November like it’s January or February. We don’t want to be that team. We want to just continue the gradual climb in what we’re doing.”

Kentucky returns a bulk of its nucleus from last season, while the Blue Devils are pretty much starting over with a solid freshman class, featuring Zion Williamson. Calipari said Kentucky’s experience may help settle early nerves.

“I don’t know if it’s an edge, but their experience should make them less anxious than anyone in the building,” he said. “They’ve been through it. I mean, I would guess all four teams are questioning like, how good are we? How are guys going to respond in this environment? I mean, all four teams.

“We have a couple of guys that should not be anxious, but, you know, this has become – maybe because of where they’ve placed it – this has become a humongous event. And to play it to start this year when you’ve barely got out-of-bounds plays and all of a sudden you’re running up and down on national television.”

GOLD STANDARD

Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State will play in the State Farm Champions Classic for three more years. The event began in 2011 and has been played at a neutral site each year. The event will be played at Chicago in 2020, New York in 2021 and Indianapolis in 2022.

“The Champions Classic has been the gold standard for college basketball’s regular-season events for the last seven years, but I love what we’re doing to use it to tip off the basketball season,” Calipari said. “What better thing for our sport than to begin the year with four of the most successful programs in college basketball.”

Kentucky will play Michigan State next season, followed by Kansas at Chicago (2020), Duke at New York in 2021 and Michigan State in Indianapolis in 2022.

REDSHIRT

Kentucky junior guard Brad Calipari plans to redshirt this season and will have two more years of eligibility remaining.

“Brad came to me about a month ago and asked me to redshirt this year,” John Calipari said. “He’s graduating in three years with plans to go to graduate school for two years here at Kentucky. This will give basketball eligibility during those two years of grad school. He will continue to be a part of our team this year and will still practice and travel with us. However, he will not play in any of our games.”

Brad Calipari said not playing this season will help him academically.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while,” he said. “With where I am in my basketball career and with what I plan to do academically, this just made the most sense. I plan to remain around my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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