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Early season showdown with Duke gives Calipari opportunity to gauge Kentucky’s progress

By Keith Taylor
KyForward sports writer

Kentucky hasn’t had much success against Duke since defeating the Blue Devils in the 1978 national championship game. Since then, Duke has dominated the series between the two teams.

The Wildcats (2-0) have lost seven of the last eight games between the two foes, including a 75-68 setback at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta three years ago. Kentucky’s lone victory in the past eight games was an 86-84 triumph over the Blue Devils in the South Region finals in 1998 on the way to a national title under Tubby Smith.

 Kentucky's Skal Labissiere goes up for a block in a win over NJIT last weekend. The second-ranked Wildcats play the Duke Blue Devils tonight in the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere goes up for a block in a win over NJIT last weekend. The second-ranked Wildcats play the Duke Blue Devils tonight in the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago (Bill Thiry Photo)

The two teams will meet at 7:30 tonight in the State Farm Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago. Kentucky is ranked No. 2, while Duke is ranked fifth in the latest Associated Press poll.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the Top 5 matchup gives him a chance to gauge his team’s progress through the first two games.

“I’m excited to coach this game,” Calipari said. “I don’t know if we can win the game — I just love the challenge to see where we are right now.”

Kentucky point guard Tyler Ulis, who is from Chicago, said Duke will help show the Wildcats “where we’re at early.”

“We just have to come out ready to fight,” he said. “We don’t have a lot in right now. It’s early in the season. We’re not sure how we’re going to play completely. We’re just going to have to come out there and play hard, and go from there.”

Like Kentucky, Duke has won its first two games and is in rebuilding mode after most of its top players opted for the NBA Draft following the school’s national championship run. Like his squad, Calipari said the Blue Devils have been searching for an identity in the first week of the regular season.

“They’re driving the ball,” Calipari said. “They’re running good stuff to put them in positions to drive the ball. He is mixing up their defense like I’ve never seen.

Most of Kentucky’s players didn’t play in the narrow loss to the Blue Devils in 2012, but Alex Poythress scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the seven-point setback. Following the contest, Calipari labeled Poythress as a beast.

Although Poythress has played in several big games throughout his career, he’s not sure Kentucky’s newcomers know what to expect prior to tipoff.

“I don’t think they will understand yet, but once they start playing they will realize it,” Poythress said. “I’ve been there and done it. You just have to take it as another game. You can’t get too hyped or get too amped, you just have to go out there and ball.”

Calipari is anxious to see how freshman center Skal Labissiere performs against veteran Duke post player Marshall Plumlee. Labissiere was named Southeastern Conference Co-Freshman of the Week after scoring 26 points in Kentucky’s 87-57 win over NJIT last week. In two games, Labissiere is Kentucky’s top scorer at 17.5 points per game.

“It’s going to be a challenge for him,” Calipari said. “This is a grit game, a grinding game. They do a great job of wedging on rebounds. When they shoot the ball, they will wedge you all the way under to the cheerleaders. So if you’re not ready to fight they’re going to get offensive rebounds.”

Charles Matthews grew up cheering for his hometown Chicago Bulls and has attended numerous contests in the past but will be playing his first game at the United Center.

“Just being able to step my foot on that court is going to be a remarkable feeling,” Matthews said. “It’s a very big game, but I just like to look at all games as just huge games. So I’m very excited, hoping that I’ll go out there, put my best foot forward and hopefully come out with a win against Duke.”

Game tracker: Kentucky vs. Duke, 7:30 p.m. tonight. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com

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