Duke and Kentucky are used to being at – or near – the top of polls, but this year has been different. Duke (20-7) is ranked 20th in the AP Poll, Kentucky (20-7) is ranked 14th, and both lost tough road games this past Saturday at Louisville and Texas A&M, respectively.
Duke had won five straight games – including three straight against ranked teams – before losing Saturday, while Kentucky had won four straight and seven of nine.
So, which team has a higher ceiling come tournament time?
“Probably Kentucky because of the depth and the fact that they haven’t gotten everything out of all the guys on their roster,” Sports Illustrated college basketball writer Brian Hamilton said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “Now, we’re here in mid-February, late-February. If you haven’t gotten that out of your guys at this point, then maybe you won’t, but Tyler Ulis is as vital a guard as there is in the country.
Ulis played all 45 minutes in Kentucky’s 79-77 overtime loss to A&M, finishing with 22 points, 11 assists and four rebounds. Freshman guard Jamal Murray, meanwhile, scored 21 and is averaging 26.8 points over his last five games.
“When you have guards that are that good and that productive and that dominant, that is a really good place to start in the NCAA Tournament,” Hamilton said. “And Kentucky just has more than Duke. I know for a fact that Duke is worried about Matt Jones’ absence.”
Jones sprained his left ankle in Duke’s improbable 74-73 win at No. 5 North Carolina last Wednesday. All five Duke starters played 34+ minutes against No. 18 Louisville, with only on reserve, freshman Chase Jeter, getting meaningful action off the bench. The Blue Devils led 37-29 at halftime but lost steam down the stretch and were outscored 42-27 in the second half.
“They’re hoping that (Jones is only) going to be (out) a week or two tops,” Hamilton said. “Maybe he (only) misses one or two games, but it all depends on how he recovers from that. If it’s longer, if it lingers – and if Duke’s depth issues linger into March – that’s going to be a real problem for them. I know that you can win college basketball at a high level playing six, maybe seven guys. These are college guys. They’re built to rebound. It’s not an 82-game season. They can physically do it. But I like Kentucky’s depth a lot more than Duke’s. If you go into March limping a little bit like Duke might, you might be in trouble.”