Kentucky vs. Duke: Cal vs. Coach K, maybe for the last time ...
An uncomfortable truth: Game 1 of a college basketball season is about as significant as Game 1 of a Major League Baseball season. Every season, plenty of teams that are somewhere between awkward and horrible in November are slaying NCAA giants in March.
Another uncomfortable truth: This Game 1, in the case of Kentucky vs. Duke, definitely does mean something. It’s the (apparently) final matchup of the schools with Mike Krzyzewski on the Duke sideline. Before Coach K, Duke was a mid-tier ACC school with no particular hoops significance. Think somewhere around Wake Forest on the power scale of college basketball. Kentucky beat Duke in the 1978 NCAA title game, which was the first time Kentucky had claimed a title in the post-Adolph Rupp era and the second time Duke had ever reached that far, having also lost the 1964 title game. Before Coach K was hired in 1980, the series history was Kentucky 10, Duke 4. Under Coach K, it’s been Duke 6, Kentucky 2. But more than the series record, it’s the scope of college basketball history that changed under Coach K.
Duke returned to the title game in 1986 under Coach K and again in 1990. And then in 1991, Duke broke through, beating Kansas and claiming a national title. They beat Kentucky in perhaps the greatest NCAA game ever the next March en route to a second title. And Coach K picked up 3 more titles.
When it looked like the sport had passed Krzyzewski by with John Calipari’s ascent as King of the one-and-done in 2012, Coach K decided that if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them. Wisconsin spoiled Kentucky’s perfect 2015 season in the Final Four, but it was Duke that claimed the title 2 days later that marked the changing of the guard. Zion went to Durham, and Calipari hasn’t been back to the Final Four since the loss two days before Duke’s most recent title. And of course, nobody in Lexington has forgotten the last matchup of the teams, which opened the 2018-19 season. Duke 118, Kentucky 84. Zion, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish had 83 by themselves.
But, of course, that epic late 2018 butt-whipping aside, Coach K hasn’t been back to the Final Four, either. Maybe the constant inventing and reinventing of the game finally wore him out. Despite super-stacked recruiting classes, Duke and Kentucky both finished April sitting at home and watching Gonzaga and Baylor compete for the national title, largely with guys who would never make either Duke or UK’s recruiting lists.
But probably not. Coach K’s year-end retirement is just another growth moment in one of the sport’s most storied programs of the past 40 years. The commitment of Cason Wallace on Saturday moved Kentucky back to No. 1 in the 2022-23 recruiting rankings. And No. 2? Why, that would be Duke.
Duke isn’t going anywhere. But neither is Kentucky. Which is why we’ll spend Tuesday night pondering whether Paolo Banchero’s talent can outlast Oscar Tshiebwe’s experience. Or whether TyTy Washington can blow past Trevor Keels. We’ll wonder whether Duke will get more contribution from AJ Griffin and Jaylen Blakes than Kentucky will wrangle from Bryce Hopkins or Daimion Collins. Or whether CJ Fredrick and Sahvir Wheeler will make more big plays as transfers than Mark Williams or Wendell Moore will as returnees.
The players change, the methods change, even the coaches sometimes change. But Duke and Kentucky remains a rivalry for the next, best way in the sport. Losing Game 1 won’t crush anybody’s season. It’s worth remembering that even Duke’s 34-point beatdown ended up amounting to … not terribly much. Both the Wildcats and Blue Devils ended that 2018-19 season in the Elite 8.
But winning the matchup?
Does Ford want to beat Chevy? Do the Lakers love outrunning the Celtics? Did the Red Sox enjoy besting the Yankees?
It’s Duke versus Kentucky. It’s Game 1 of a new season. It means nothing. It means everything.