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UK and Duke renew their rivalry in NYC's MSG

UK Athletics

Two of the most storied programs in college basketball history meet on Tuesday night when Kentucky faces Duke in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden. WUKY's Alan Lytle and SportsPage host Keith Elkins preview the game.


The blue blood programs have faced off 22 times, with the Cats leading the series 12-10. Included in that ledger are three classic NCAA Tournament games:

  • Kentucky beat Duke 94-88 to claim the 1978 NCAA Championship in St. Louis
  • Duke topped Kentucky 104-103 in the 1992 NCAA East Regional Final in Philadelphia
  • Kentucky beat Duke 86-84 in the 1998 NCAA South Regional Final in St. Petersburg

Duke has had the best of the rivalry recently. The Blue Devils have won four of the last five against the Cats and eight of the last 10. Kentucky most recently beat Duke in 2015 in the Champions Classic, when Tyler Ulis had 18 points and Jamal Murray had 16.
But those are all games from the past and, as head coaches John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski would tell you, they have no bearing on this year's game, one where fans will be treated to an early-season matchup between highly-ranked teams. Kentucky comes into the game ranked 10th in the Associated Press poll, while Duke is ninth.

Calipari likes the fact that this game can be used as a measuring stick in early November.

"Our focus is on us. We're going to play how we play. They're going to play how they play. And either they're more advanced than us or we're a little more advanced than we think we are," Calipari said. "But we'll find out. This is the games you learn about your team. This is it. And before our league, we play five or six games like this where we'll learn about what we are."

Calipari is impressed with what he has seen from Duke.

"It's going to be a hard game for us. They're really, really good," Calipari said. "They're deep. They're big. Seven-foot, 6-10, 6-11. They're big. So, it'll be a challenge."

With the game being played at Madison Square Garden, past performances of certain Wildcats in that building come to mind. John Wall had 25 points as the Cats beat Connecticut at MSG in 2009. Malik Monk had 23 points at UK topped Michigan State in the Garden in 2016. And Tyrese Maxey had 26 points as Kentucky beat Michigan State at Madison Square Garden in 2019. Calipari thinks some players are just cut out for the big stage.

"That's what you'll learn from this," Calipari said. "You think this guy, that guy, that guy, (but) you don't know until the game is over and you look and you say, 'He loved that moment.' The biggest part of it is, guys like that aren't afraid to look bad. They don't care; they're going to go play. They're not afraid to miss a shot or take a tough shot or a game-winning shot. It's not going to change how they see it. They want that play."

And while this is seen as a huge game in the college hoops landscape, Calipari is trying to temper expectations. Unless things go well.

"Like I told these guys, this is our next game. It's not a big game – unless we win, then it's huge," Calipari said. "And I said, 'How about this one? You're not going to know if you win or you lose – until you win or lose. So, go play. Let's be at our best. They'll be at their best, and let's see who is a little bit behind.' Because, at the end of the day, I think both teams will be fine, but we're both going to learn about each other."

The Cats have a pair of exhibition games under their belts. UK topped Kentucky Wesleyan 95-72, getting 18 points apiece from Keion Brooks Jr. and TyTy Washington Jr. One week later, the Cats rallied past Miles College 80-71 behind 15 points apiece from Washington and Sahvir Wheeler.

Duke played just one public exhibition prior to the season. The Blue Devils thumped Winston-Salem State 106-38 on Oct. 30. Paolo Banchero led Duke with 21 points and nine rebounds, Mark Williams added 14 and Trevor Keels had 12.
The Champions Classic

Kentucky is 5-5 in Champions Classic games, tied with Kansas and one game behind Duke. Michigan State is 4-6. The Wildcats are 1-2 vs. the Blue Devils in the Champions Classic. All three previous matchups were top-10 showdowns (Associated Press Top 25).

There have been 13 top-10 matchups in the Champions Classic. Kentucky has been involved in seven of them and has a 3-4 record in those games.

The Wildcats lost last season's Champions Classic matchup vs. Kansas, 65-62, in an empty arena in Indianapolis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kentucky has never lost more than two in a row in the series.

This will mark the fourth time the event is held in Madison Square Garden. UK won the three previous games -- all by seven points or more.

Kentucky in New York

Kentucky has historically performed well under the bright lights of New York. The Wildcats are 38-14 in games in the New York City area, including wins in 10 of the last 12 games.

In the modern-day version of Madison Square Garden, UK is 14-4. The latest appearance in "the Mecca of Basketball" was a thrilling 69-62 victory for Kentucky on Nov. 5, 2019, in a matchup of the nation's preseason top two teams. The Wildcats knocked off the top-ranked Spartans behind 26 points in Tyrese Maxey's Kentucky debut.

UK is 3-0 in the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats are 0-2 vs. Duke in all-time matchups in New York.

Kentucky in Season Openers

Now in its 120th season of college basketball, Kentucky is 98-20 all-time in season openers entering 2021-22 (the Wildcats did not have a schedule in 1952-53 due to NCAA suspension).

UK has won 11 of 12 in season openers under John Calipari. Kentucky's lone season-opening loss in the Calipari era was in 2018-19, which snapped a nine-game winning streak that began when Calipari took the job. Prior to that loss, Calipari-coached teams had won 14 straight regular-season openers dating back to his time at Memphis.

Included in Kentucky's 98-20 all-time season-opening record was a 34-game winning streak from the 1927-28 season to the 1961-62 season.