Kentucky Basketball set to tip-off season against Duke

LEXINGTON, Ky (WYMT)- It's a contradiction, but a willful one. And though John Calipari has repeated it many times in similar situations, it holds true once again this week.

"If you win it's huge. If you lose you just put it in the rearview mirror, learn from it and go on to the next game," Coach Cal said. "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."

"This thing", of course, is the State Farm Champions Classic. No. 2 Kentucky will face No. 4 Duke in the late game of the annual event, set to begin at around 9:40 p.m. on ESPN after Michigan State and Kansas square off in the first of two marquee matchups in Indianapolis.

"I would say all four it's a process," Calipari said. "You play bad and win or you play well and lose, this is learning. And you really get a chance to say, OK, what are our strengths? What are some weaknesses? Is there anything glaring that we're going to have to address? And I'll tell you, it's not bad that you address it right away."

The Champions Classic has always been an early season affair, but this is the first time it's coming on the season's opening night.

"I'm excited to play our first game against such a big-time program," Reid Travis said. "They have a lot of great players, great coaches. I think it's the best thing for us – kind of get thrown into the fire right away and see where we're at. We have a lot of things we need to work on still, but being able to use this as a measuring stick, I think, is going to be great for us."

You can tell Reid Travis is a veteran, because he's already talking like his coach about Tuesday night's game. In a game featuring seven of the top 13 players in final RSCI rankings for the class of 2018, Calipari says Kentucky will be counting on the likes of Travis against the Blue Devils.

"I don't know if it's an edge, but their experience should make them less anxious than anyone in the building," Calipari said. "They've been through it."

Travis elected to transfer to UK to play in games exactly like this, while PJ Washington has now played in a season's worth of them. Last year in the Champions Classic, Washington had a quiet two points as UK's comeback bid against Kansas fell just short.

"Last year I just didn't know what to expect," Washington said. "This year I kind of know what it's going to be like. I know what Cal expects from me and I know what he expects from the team. I just have to go out there, do what he wants and just basically produce."

UK-Kansas is one thing – and will be again when the two teams face off in January – but UK-Duke is another. There's the history dating back to the 1978 national championship game and the 1992 Elite Eight, plus the fact that the Cats and Blue Devils have competed to be the kings of college basketball – both on the court and on the recruiting trail – under their two Hall of Fame coaches in recent seasons. That will bring some added baggage, but Coach Cal and his staff have worked to ensure their players don't carry it on to the court.

"The coaches have done a great job of taking that off of us and explaining that this is just another game," Travis said. "Obviously we're excited. It's a big game for us, but at the end of the day it's just one of many throughout the season and we're just going to use this to try and see where we're at, see the things that we need to work on."

The result of Tuesday's game will matter a great deal to fans, and it will be a massive resume boost for the winner come March. It won't, however, dictate what either team will be when that time comes.

"They're excited about playing the game – my guys," Calipari said. "I like my team. I'm good. We may be facing a team that's better than us. OK. But over the long haul, the way this team practices, the way they get along, the grind of this, that each individual player has gotten better, I'm good. I want this team, and we'll throw it up and see what goes on."

Not Your Typical Season Opener

When it was announced last season that the State Farm Champions Classic would move up a week and start the 2018-19 college basketball season, there was obviously a ton of excitement and hype based on the history of the four programs. Fast forward to game week and the hype has grown exponentially. There are a number of reasons why.

First, one needs to look no further than the rankings beside each teams' names. UK enters the season ranked No. 2 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll while Duke will start the season at No. 4 in the AP Top 25 and No. 3 in the Coaches Poll. The significance? Not only is it the first time UK has opened the regular season vs. an opponent ranked inside the AP Top 25 since Nov. 15, 1996 (the third-ranked Wildcats fell to 20th-ranked Clemson 79-71 in overtime), it's the first time Kentucky has been a part of an AP top-five matchup since Nov. 17, 1979.

The opponent for that game? None other than Duke (No. 3), which defeated the Wildcats (No. 2) 82-76 in overtime in the Hall of Fame Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts.

As a matter of fact, according to STATS, this will mark just the seventh time in AP Top 25 history that two top-five teams will meet one another in their respective season openers and the first time since 1994 when John Calipari's No. 3 UMass team toppled No. 1 Arkansas 104-80.

UK (regardless of its ranking) has played a top-10 opponent to open a season four other times, posting a 2-2 mark in those games.

The excitement for this game also grew as the two schools -- as they often do recently -- locked up the nation's top two ranked recruiting classes. Nearly a third of the top 30 players in ESPN's class of 2018 rankings play at Kentucky (five) or Duke (four).

UK leads the all-time matchup with Duke 12-9 with a number of memorable moments. While most are quick to point to the infamous Christian Laettner shot in 1992, the Wildcats have some unforgettable victories over the Blue Devils, most notably the 1978 national championship game and a double-digit Kentucky comeback in the 1998 Elite Eight to get to the Final Four and eventually the program's seventh national title.

Remarkably, both teams have been ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 in 10 of the last 13 meetings of these two teams, including this season.

All told, UK has been featured in a top-five AP matchup in the Champions Classic on three other occasions.

• Nov. 12, 2013 - No. 2 Michigan State 78, No. 1 Kentucky 74
• Nov. 18, 2014 - No. 1 Kentucky 72, No. 5 Kansas 40
• Nov. 17, 2015 - No. 2 Kentucky 74, No. 5 Duke 63

UK is 5-3 overall when both teams are ranked in the top five under Calipari. As for this matchup and its Champions Classic implications ...

Winner Takes Champions Classic Lead

In an event that features the titans of college basketball, Kentucky and Duke have the opportunity Tuesday to take sole possession of first place in the series' total wins. The two schools enter Tuesday's showdown with identical 4-3 records in the State Farm Champions Classic.

• The series is tightly bunched. Behind UK and Duke, Kansas and Michigan State each have 3-4 records
• This will be the third meeting between the Wildcats and the Blue Devils but the first since UK defeated Duke 74-63 in Chicago in 2015. The Wildcats are 1-1 vs. the Blue Devils in the Champions Classic
• The matchup in Bankers Life Fieldhouse should bring back positive memories for Big Blue Nation. The last time the Champions Classic was in Indianapolis in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, in 2014, UK stomped Kansas 72-40 to spark one of the best seasons in UK history. That 2014-15 team went on to a 38-0 record before falling in the Final Four in -- of all places -- Indianapolis, just down the street at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Kentucky Closes Exhibition Season with Hard-Fought Win over IUP

Kentucky withstood a fearless effort from Indiana University of Pennsylvania for an 86-64 victory at Rupp Arena on Friday, closing out UK's exhibition season -- which included the Big Blue Bahamas exhibition tour in August -- with a 6-0 record.

Although the IUP name might not catch the eyes of fans, it was just the kind of test John Calipari was hoping his team would face before its regular-season opener vs. Duke. IUP enters the season ranked No. 8 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches' preseason top 25 Division II poll.

UK needed strong performances from its 1-2 interior punch of Reid Travis and PJ Washington. Travis dominated with 22 points and 14 rebounds -- both game highs -- for his third straight double-double in exhibition play (including the Bahamas), while Washington chipped in with 20 points and six rebounds. Tyler Herro also made five 3-pointers and scored 17 points and Keldon Johnson totaled 11 points with five assists.

Kentucky used a 14-0 run midway through the first half to withstand some early IUP blows, but IUP closed the half strong and got within six points with under a minute to play before halftime.

The Crimson Hawks hung close for a while, but Quade Green's 3-pointer with 6:46 gave the Wildcats a 67-55 lead, a double-digit advantage they would never relinquish.

UK made 9 of 22 from behind the arc after a 1-for-13 performance a week earlier vs. Transylvania. Kentucky dominated inside again, outscoring IUP 38-20 in the paint and outrebounding the Crimson Hawks 27-16.

Wildcats Turn Up for Tune-Ups

Kentucky went 6-0 during its exhibition season, counting the foreign tour to the Bahamas.

Although the games don't count in the official records, the Wildcats have a knack for taking care of business in exhibition games nonetheless. UK improved to 136-12 all-time in exhibition games with its win over Indiana University of Pennsylvania last week and has won its last 15 scrimmages, dating back to Nov. 2, 2014, vs. Pikeville.

Including the foreign tour games in the Bahamas, Kentucky was impressive in its six exhibition games. The Wildcats outscored their opponents by an average of 27.7 points per game. UK shot 50.9 percent from the field while holding the competition to 36.2 percent from the floor. Kentucky was most impressive on the glass during its exhibition season, outrebounding opponents by an average of 16.3 boards per game.

Five players averaged double figures, led by PJ Washington and Tyler Herro with 15.0 points per game. Reid Travis averaged a double-double with 12.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per contest. Keldon Johnson (12.8 points per game) and Nick Richards (11.5 ppg) also averaged in double figures.

UK Perfect in Season Openers under Calipari

Kentucky will try to make it 10 for 10 in regular-season openers under John Calipari with a victory on Tuesday. UK is 9-0 to this point -- although this matchup, as detailed above, is certainly a step up in the level of competition.

Going back to his time at Memphis, John Calipari has won 14 straight regular-season openers.

Kentucky Picked to Win 49th SEC Title

With a mix of seasoned veterans and another crop of talented newcomers, Kentucky will once again be the hunted. Of course that's the same mantra every season, but a select panel of media confirmed the standard for 2018-19 when it voted the Wildcats to win their sixth regular-season title under 10thyear head coach John Calipari.

Should Kentucky achieve the feat, it would mark the program's 49th overall regular-season title.

It's the 14th time since the 1998-99 season the Wildcats are the overall preseason favorite. Calipari has directed his teams to regular-season SEC crowns in 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Kentucky has claimed the SEC Tournament title in each of the last four seasons and six in all, winning in 2010, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Each school selected media members that cover their team and additional media from across the nation were selected by the conference office to comprise the voting panel. Points were compiled on a 14-13-12-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis. Each media member also voted for two All-SEC teams.

Travis, Washington Tabbed Preseason All-SEC

In a league as talented as it's ever been, Reid Travis and PJ Washington were tabbed preseason All-Southeastern Conference picks by the league's media.

Travis was picked to the first team while PJ Washington was tabbed to the second team. Both players, along with Keldon Johnson, received at least one vote for the preseason pick for SEC Player of the Year.

Travis is joined by Arkansas' Daniel Gafford, LSU's Tremont Waters, South Carolina's Chris Silva and Tennessee's Grant Williams. Williams was the choice of the media for the preseason player of the year. Joining Washington on the second team were Auburn's Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, Florida's Jalen Hudson, Mississippi State's Quinndary Weatherspoon, Missouri's Jontay Porter and Tennessee's Admiral Schofield.

UK Starts Season No. 2 in Polls

With what appears to be a dangerous blend of talent, unusual (for Kentucky) experience and the momentum of a powerful preseason showing in the Bahamas, UK will start the 2018-19 season ranked No. 2 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll. It is the sixth time under John Calipari the Wildcats will begin the year ranked among the top three in both polls.

Kansas was the only team voted ahead of the Wildcats in both polls. UK picked up 19 of the possible 65-first place votes in the AP Top 25 and 12 of the 32 votes in the Coaches Poll. Kentucky just missed out on the No. 1 ranking in the Coaches Poll with 761 points. Kansas received 771.

It's the ninth time in 10 seasons the Wildcats will begin the season ranked among the nation's top five to begin the season.

The AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll aren't the only preseason rankings that are showing confidence in the Wildcats. The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook and Andy Katz of tabbed UK No. 1 in their preseason rankings.

Seven Kentucky opponents -- three of which UK will play twice -- enter the 2018-19 season ranked in the AP Top 25, including four top-10 opponents in Kansas (1), Duke (4), Tennessee (6) and North Carolina (8). Four more teams sit just outside the top 25 and received votes.

In the Coaches Poll, six opponents are ranked, four are in the top 10 and six others received votes.

Showcasing the league's strength, fellow SEC members Tennessee (6), Auburn (11), Mississippi State (18) and LSU (23) were ranked among the AP Top 25. Additionally, Florida, Alabama and Missouri earned votes.