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Champions Classic: UK vets Washington, Travis eager for season-opener against Duke

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — PJ Washington doesn’t shy away from the big stage and the Kentucky sophomore forward is looking forward to Tuesday’s season opener against Duke in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.

“I’m a competitor and I love playing against good teams,” he said. “It’s always fun playing against somebody like that. You know that they’re going to give you a good game and you just have to go out there and play your best.”

Washington, a starter in the team’s two exhibition wins over Transylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has been anxious to begin his second season after he opted to return for a second season instead of remaining in the NBA Draft.

“This is all we’ve been working for,” Washington said Sunday. “We can’t wait to get things going and start the season. We want to get as (many) wins as we can.”

Kentucky’s PJ Washington and Nick Richards celebrate during an exhibition game recently at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats open the regular season against Duke Tuesday night in the State Farm Champions Classic in Indianapolis. (Kentucky Today/Tammie Brown)

Kentucky and Duke have split a pair of games in the Champions Classic. The Wildcats defeated the Blue Devils 74-73 three years ago in Chicago. Duke topped Kentucky 75-68 in 2012 in Atlanta.

“I think it’s great for us to go out there and play somebody like Duke,” Washington said. “They’re a great team and a great program. They have great players and we’re excited to play against them.”

A year ago, the Wildcats dropped a 65-61 loss to Kansas in the third game of the season at Madison Square Garden. Kentucky prepared for the showdown with two regular-season games before stepping on the big stage in the Big Apple. The Champions Classic was moved to the first week of the regular season for the first time, which has all four teams‚ Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State ranked in the preseason Top 25. Kansas is first, followed by Kentucky at No. 2. Duke is ranked fifth and Michigan State opens the season at No. 10.

Unlike last year, Washington said he’s better prepared to face a Top 10 team at this point in the season than he was a year ago.

“Last year I didn’t know what to expect going into a big game like that,” Washington said. “This year, I know what it’s going to be like and I know what Cal expects from me and we know what he expects from the team, so we’ve got to go out there, do what he wants and basically produce,”

Washington added the preparation is similar to other lesser-known opponents.

“You just have to bring the same mindset with every game you play,” he said. “You have to go out there and not underestimate anybody. Just play our game.”

Washington is familiar with most players on Duke’s roster, including Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett.

“I’ve been watching them grow up and played with them on the AAU circuit,” Washington said. “They’re great players and I’m just excited to see what we can do against those guys. They have a good coach with coach K and we have a good coach as well. We will just have to go in and see who fights the most.”

Kentucky senior Reid Travis also knows a little bit about Duke and has some past history with the Blue Devils. Travis was recruited by Duke following his senior year spent time with Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski and “got to know him really well in the short time he recruited me” and has admired Duke ever since even though he opted to attend Stanford at the time.

“I have a lot of respect for the team and the program they have there. I know it’s going to be a tough task for us and a challenge for us. I think we couldn’t ask for anything more for our first game.”

Travis said playing in high-caliber season-openers helped influence this decision to attend Kentucky. Travis chose the Wildcats over Villanova last summer.

“It crossed my mind to play in a big game and to play on a big stage,” Travis said. “It’s something I wanted, to be on that (big) stage and enjoy the atmosphere.”

It won’t get any bigger than Tuesday’s season-opener against the Blue Devils.

Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Duke, Champions Classic, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. TV/Radio: ESPN/UK Radio Network.

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

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