One question going into Tuesday’s highly anticipated Kentucky-Duke game to open the basketball season concerns the star freshmen on each team. Might the hype surrounding Duke’s freshmen serve as motivation for UK’s first-year players?
Six staffers for Sports Illustrated fueled this supposed scenario this weekend with their votes for this season’s likely Freshman of Year. Five of the six voted for a Duke player: RJ Barrett (three votes) and Zion Williamson (two). The other vote went to North Carolina’s Nassir Little.
If Kentucky’s freshmen feel slighted, they have been careful not to show it.
“We played against them in high school …,” Tyler Herro said of the Duke freshman last Friday. “We know how good they are. And they’re ranked higher than all of us, so, I mean, we’ll see what happens.”
When asked if the celebration of Duke’s freshmen served as motivation, Herro smiled and said, “Yeah, I guess you could say that. Yeah.”
Enter Kentucky’s veteran players. Sophomores PJ Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green, plus graduate transfer Reid Travis, have been in big games. They are expected to be difference-makers as steadying influences Tuesday night.
“I kind of know what to anticipate this year,” Washington said on Sunday. “We’ve just got to go out there and play our game. And I feel they (the Blue Devils) have got to do the same thing as us. We’re going to see who comes out and plays the hardest. And I think that team is going to win.”
When asked how experience can make a difference, Washington pointed out the anxiety that comes with a game like Tuesday’s.
“They’re going to have jitters,” he said of the freshmen. “Every freshman has jitters. It’s a tough game. There’s a lot of fans, a lot of things going on, and you’ve got to stay focused.”
Travis, a graduate transfer from Stanford, will be playing his first game for Kentucky. But he’s no stranger to high-profile games.
“We played at Kansas when I was there,” he said of playing for Stanford.
It was an early-season game (Dec. 3, 2016). How did Travis handle Allen Fieldhouse and the top-level competition provided by the Jayhawks? He scored 29 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
His 19-for-22 free-throw shooting suggested Travis was a tower of strength, although Kansas won 89-74.
Travis said the veteran players can provide perspective.
“As far as not blowing it up to something that it’s not,” he said. “It’s a big game. There’s a lot of excitement around it with a lot of hype. But at the end of the day, just trust your work. Trust the work we’ve put in as a team.”
When asked about an advantage that could go with having veteran players, UK Coach John Calipari said, “I don’t know if it’s an edge. But their experience should make them less anxious than anyone in the building. They’ve been through it.
“I would guess all four teams (in the State Farm Champions Classic) are questioning, like, how good are we? How are guys going to respond in this environment? … We have a couple guys that should not be anxious. But, you know, … this has become a humongous event.”
Typically, coaches dismiss revenge as a motivating factor. Perhaps the Michigan football team’s revenge tour this season is the exception that proves the rule.
“I think when you get to that level, you’re kind of beyond being motivated by things like that,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said of player wanting to prove he should be rated higher. “You’re motivated by winning, and winning the whole thing.”
Another ESPN analyst, Jay Williams, said coaches can be willing to use any potential motivational tool. Early this season, without mentioning Duke or any other team, Calipari made a reference to his freshmen not being rated as high as other freshmen.
“Well, I think you have both coaches who can take any scenario and spin it toward the motivational factor for their team,” Williams said of Calipari and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. “It can be a gloomy day outside when they get there, and Cal is, like, ‘You kidding me? You see the Gods above, they don’t want us to win this game.’”
On Sunday, Calipari did not embrace the idea of his freshmen being motivated by the hype surrounding Duke’s freshmen.
“I don’t think they are. …,” he said. “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 has gotten better, I’m good.
“Like be who you are.”
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Duke
9:30 p.m. Tuesday in State Farm Champions Classic in Indianapolis (ESPN)