Kentucky's 11-point victory over Duke on Tuesday was only the third meeting between college basketball's two preeminent powerhouses since the turn of the millennium. On the surface, a game between two top-five teams on a neutral court in Chicago qualified as one of the most anticipated non-conference matchups of the season. And to those keeping a close eye on the future of the sport, the subtext made it even more compelling.
Duke and Kentucky have finished as No. 1 and No. 2 in ESPN's recruiting rankings each of the last three seasons. With apologies to Arizona's Sean Miller and Kansas' Bill Self, there's no one recruiting on the level of John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski right now. For as intriguing as this week's matchup was, both of these programs are poised to be even better next season. This is an arms race that's just beginning.
That's because the 2016 national recruiting class is widely considered to be incredibly strong, and Duke and Kentucky have created a monopoly on the five-star talent at the top of the rankings.
As the early signing period wraps up, Duke and Kentucky have combined to sign five of the top seven and nine of the top 45 players in the class of 2016, according to ESPN. The shear amount star power between the two schools is overwhelming. It begs the question: whose class is better?
Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox vs. Duke's Frank Jackson
Fox is considered a pure point guard while Jackson has the ability to play on or off the ball. That versatility is key for Jackson: assuming Derryck Thornton returns for Duke next season, Jackson will be able to serve as an off-guard and backup point to maximize his value. Fox is going to find himself in a predicament if the excellent Tyler Ulis (more likely) or rugged Isaiah Briscoe (less likely) decide to come for Kentucky.
Jackson's other big advantage here comes in shooting ability: while Jackson hit 39 percent of the 47 threes he took this summer on the Adidas circuit, Fox hit just 30 percent of his attempts from downtown on the Nike circuit.
All of this is to say that Frank Jackson is a terrific prospect, but Fox still gets the edge. It's almost impossible to top Fox's superior quickness, playmaking skills and defensive ability.
Fox led the EYLB in both assists and steals this summer. He's potentially the fastest player in the class of 2016, and he might have the quickest hands, too. He's going to draw comparisons to the rest of the superstar guards John Calipari has coached when he arrives in Lexington next year, because he's that talented. If and when his jumper shows up (the same flaw Derrick Rose, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe had to focus on), he's going to be a terrific two-way player.
Kentucky's Malik Monk vs. Duke's Jayson Tatum
When Monk decided to commit to Kentucky over Arkansas on Wednesday, he also made the decision to play off the ball instead of honing his point guard skills. That shouldn't be a problem: Kentucky is starting three defacto point guards this season and they're doing just fine. Even at 6'3, Monk is more equipped to play on the wing than anyone in Calipari's current lot.
Monk has two big advantages over Tatum: athleticism and shooting range. Monk might be the most explosive leaper and explosive scorer in the country. His list of achievements includes a 59-point game on the EYBL as a junior and two games this summer where he hit six three-pointers. If you're looking for the best mixtape to showcase his ridiculous dunking ability, I'm partial to this one:
Monk's only problem from a long-term perspective is he isn't blessed with great length (6'4 wingspan) and has a ways to go as a passer and playmaker. That's where Tatum shines: he has a great frame for a wing at 6'8 and he profiles as a secondary playmaker thanks to his passing ability and feel for the game.
Right now, Tatum makes his living from mid-range. He knows the spots on the floor he likes and he's an expert at getting to them. His mid-post game is already miles ahead of most big men in the class of 2016. And when he's within 17-feet, he doesn't miss often. This is a prospect polished beyond his years.
Duke has thrived with oversized wings the last few years, from Jabari Parker to Justise Winslow to now Brandon Ingram. Tatum has next. There's a reason he's currently projected to be the No. 1 draft pick in 2017.
Duke's Harry Giles vs. Kentucky's Bam Adebayo
Many believed Adebayo was set to follow his AAU teammate Dennis Smith to NC State, but it's hard to blame him for choosing to be the next player in John Calipari's incredible big man lineage. From Anthony Davis to Nerlens Noel to Julius Randle to Karl-Anthony Towns to Skal Labissiere, it's hard to deny that type of success.
Adebayo is a strong and explosive athlete who might remind you of a young Amar'e Stoudemire. He's a great rebounder and has no problem finishing a play above the rim. A big man with this type of bounce doesn't come along every year:
Adebayo isn't much of a shooter yet, which will make his transition to the NBA interesting. The game now favors fours with shooting and playmaking skills, and Adebayo has a long way to go there. In college, though? Yeah, he's going to be a human highlight reel for Kentucky.
On the other side sits Harry Giles, considered by many to be the best high school player in the world. At 6'11 with a 7'3 wingspan, Giles is equipped with elite athleticism, a non-stop motor and a developing offensive arsenal. He projects as an impact defender and rebounder from day one, someone who should be great at blowing up pick-and-rolls and giving Duke second chance opportunities on the offensive glass.
He's also coming off the second torn ACL of his career, and no one knows for sure how he'll bounce back. Giles' current knee injury is nothing like the one he suffered after his freshman year of high school, when he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus playing for USA Basketball. It's admittedly hard to count that as a silver lining for such a young player.
Giles still needs to develop his jumper, but he seems to have all the tool you look for in a young big man. Let's just hope he comes back healthy.
Kentucky's Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones vs. Duke's Javin DeLaurier
Killeya-Jones and DeLaurier are likely to be four-year players in the mode of Amile Jefferson and/or Marcus Lee, active front court bodies who can play both ends of the floor and fill in gaps should Duke and Kentucky ever miss out on one-and-done talent over the next four years.
Gabriel is more interesting. He's a super fluid but skinny athlete at 6'10, 200 pounds, using a late growth spurt to turn into a big man who feels comfortably handling or shooting it. He might need a year to work on his body because he's ready to be fully unleashed, but he has the long-term upside of a lottery pick.
The other wild card here? Five-star big man Marques Bolden, who is seriously considering Duke. We'll give Kentucky a slight edge for now partially because of Giles' injury, but Bolden could push this tag of war back in favor of the Blue Devils.