Last college basketball season ended with Duke snipping nets, and it will be remembered most for Kentucky’s pursuit of a perfect record. Those two programs defined the year, as happens a lot of years in college basketball. For most of this season, it seemed as though 2015-16 would not follow suit.
Only 10 days ago, Kentucky lingered near the bottom of the Top 25, and Duke had fallen out of it after four losses in five games. Kentucky’s latest haul of top-shelf recruits had not jelled, and injuries had stifled Duke’s repeat bid. It would be a season, for once, for other teams to stand in the spotlight.
Suddenly here we are, not two weeks later, and it’s starting to look as though the teams that could fill the void of great teams at the top of the sport might just be same old Duke and Kentucky. Not to dismiss Villanova’s remarkable efficiency or Oklahoma’s sharp shooting or Kansas’s well-roundedness, but the Blue Devils and the Wildcats have both surged with uber-talented rosters that have come together just as March beckons.
After a midseason skid following an injury to forward Amile Jefferson, Duke has won five straight and validated its surge Wednesday night with a 74-73 victory at North Carolina that seemed to materialize out of vapor. Having stumbled through much of the early season, Kentucky has won three straight SEC games by an average of 26.7 points and has shot to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll. Both teams are on upswings, and both possess features and strengths that should only make them more dangerous in the tournament.
All season long, Duke has been an offensive machine. The Blue Devils rank second in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency rankings. The varied skills of freakish freshman Brandon Ingram, Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard make them perhaps the most difficult team in the country to guard. Their problem is depth. Without Jefferson, they played only six players significant minutes, which not only led to fatigue but also forced them to play defense with less aggression for fear of foul trouble.
The Blue Devils have made their defense serviceable, at least. They still lack depth, and will be diminished further if guard Matt Jones, who badly sprained his ankle and, according to reporters there, walked out of the arena on crutches Wednesday night, cannot return. “I’m not sure how long he’ll be out,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. Depth, though, is much more of a problem during the regular season. It’s mitigated in the tournament by longer and more numerous timeouts. Many coaches tend to shrink their rotations, anyway, given the extended rest.
Deep tournament runs sometimes hinge on the transcendence of one player, and Ingram might be the kind of player who can reach that level. Ingram, a 6-foot-9 hybrid with a pterodactyl’s wingspan, has the handle to play point guard and the strength to punish smaller players in the post. When Duke fell behind Carolina by eight points late in the second half, Krzyzewski essentially ran a clear-out offense and asked Ingram to take on any defender Carolina threw at him. Ingram scored three baskets in rapid succession – one backing down, one driving to the hoop and one on a step-back jumper – and carried Duke.
Kentucky’s recruiting class didn’t announce itself as quickly as last year’s, but the Wildcats have started to flex. For Kentucky, hope for another deep tournament run resides in its backcourt, which might be the best in the country. Coach John Calipari touted point guard Tyler Ulis as a player of the year candidate this week. Freshman shooting guard Jamal Murray scores 18.8 points per game overall and has averaged 28.3 over the past three games. In a season bereft of dominant big men, guards may determine the NCAA champion. And Kentucky has some of the best in the nation.
No one doubts Kentucky’s talent. On the strength of the highest-rated recruiting class in the country, the Wildcats spent two weeks early this season ranked No. 1. It hasn’t panned out like last year’s overwhelming crop. Skal Labissiere, a 6-11 forward many believed would be the best freshman in country after LSU’s Ben Simmons, has scored zero points as often as he’s scored in double figures – three times – since the start of December.
But Kentucky has compensated with its killer backcourt and more minutes for junior Derek Willis, a forward who can stretch the floor and shoots 41.7 percent from three-point range. Kentucky should only get better and deeper once Alex Poythress returns from a knee injury, which will likely happen next week. Despite relative struggles, Kentucky is still sitting at No. 7 in Pomeroy’s ratings.
Back on Nov. 18, Kentucky beat Duke, 74-63, in Chicago. There might be another neutral-site meeting in their future, this time with much higher stakes. Even in a season with so much turmoil at the top, it might again come down to two familiar programs.