KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sometimes, everything goes according to plan.
Sure, Gonzaga and Marquette fans -- who watched their teams lose to Kansas State and Duke, respectively, Monday night -- might not be feeling the pre-ordained big-game love. (Gonzaga fans in particular are likely feeling a dearth of enthusiasm at this point. Tough start for the Zags, huh?) But pretty much everyone else will, because the Wildcats' and Blue Devils' wins in the CBE Classic semifinals set up the best early-season tournament matchup in recent memory.
When you looked at the holiday tournament schedules -- and if you're like us, you scoured those things like a "Lost" fan hunting for dead-end clues to whatever silly plot twist that show threw at you next -- it was the prospective matchup that stuck out most, and now it's here: Tuesday night, we get to watch No. 1 Duke and No. 4 Kansas State, two of college hoops' most serious national title contenders, play in front of a raucous Kansas State crowd in a gleaming new arena in downtown Kansas City. Short of March Madness, college hoops doesn't get much better than this.
You know what that means. Preview time! Let's go to the tape:
CBE Championship: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 4 Kansas State, 10 p.m. ET
Pullen no stranger to Blue Devils, Coach K
Monday night, Kansas State coach Frank Martin said he'd always admired Duke's program from afar, but that he didn't know Coach K as well as some of his contemporaries. (Like, for example, former Kansas State coach Bob Huggins, who Martin almost always refers to as merely "Huggs.")
That's not the case for Jacob Pullen. For a Big 12 player who's never faced a Duke team in his career, the Kansas State guard is plenty familiar with these Duke Blue Devils. That's because he played alongside two of them -- Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler -- when the USA Select Team, a batch of the best college players in the nation, visited Las Vegas to help prepare the Mike Krzyzewski-coached USA Basketball program for the FIBA World Championships this summer.
After the Duke coach found out that Pullen also hailed from Chicago -- Coach K is nothing if not proud of his hometown -- Pullen struck up an unlikely relationship with Krzyzewski.
"After that, he was always keeping an eye on me," Pullen said. "Even though he was busy coaching the NBA players, he was always talking to me, Kyle, and Nolan. I kind of felt like a Dukie at one point.
"I just hope he doesn't have Nolan guard me," Pullen said, laughing. "I'm tired of guarding Nolan, and I'm sure he's tired of guarding me."
Good luck with that, Jake. Whether he likes the idea or not, Smith is likely to guard Pullen for much of the game Tuesday night, which is just one of the many intriguing matchups on hand in the CBE final.
What to watch for: Backcourt freshmen, frontcourt depth
By this point, you know what you're going to get from Pullen and Smith. Less obvious are the contributions each team's freshmen -- Duke's highly touted Kyrie Irving, KSU's pleasantly surprising Will Spradling -- will bring at the point guard spot. Irving is a difficult matchup for anyone, but Spradling has earned big minutes early in his career with heady offensive play and solid defense, and he'll need to play a major role if Kansas State's plan to rush Irving into bad decisions is going to work out.
These teams' backcourts get the majority of the attention -- and for good reason, because they're two of the best in the country -- but if there's one key to Tuesday night's title game, it's likely to come in the frontcourt. Mason Plumlee was monstrous for Duke Monday night -- 25 points, 12 rebounds (including six offensive boards) and five blocks; that kind of monstrous -- flashing signs of the potential he showed as a highly touted recruit and future NBA lottery pick. Plumlee also answered, at least for one night, the biggest question about this Duke team: Without Brian Zoubek, could it grab enough of its own misses to mask mediocre shooting efforts? That's what won Duke its title last March; no stat was more important to Coach K's fourth NCAA title team.
But Plumlee's breakout game came against an overmatched Marquette interior that doesn't have the personnel to keep up with athletic big men in the post. That's not the case with Kansas State. Martin has a bevy of post players -- five of whom saw significant time in Monday night's win -- and none of them represents much of a drop-off in skill or athleticism. All of them can defend, all of them can rebound and all of them are efficient scorers around the basket when Pullen and company create easy looks in their uptempo transition offense.
Here again, then, is another test for Duke's frontcourt. Can Mason (and Miles) Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Singler do enough against such a deep and talented front line? Or does Kansas State simply have too much? Conversely, can Kansas State get stops against Singler, the best off-ball shot-creator in the college game? Or is the loss of defensive stopper Dominique Sutton in the offseason still a glaring weakness for an otherwise loaded Wildcats team?
At this point in the season, everyone loves to say they're "learning about their team." Rarely are those lessons so applicable to the national title picture. Rarely do two teams this good, with hopes this high, get to test themselves so early in the season. Rarely do those tests come in front of an insanely partisan "neutral" crowd, a crowd that will empty the Kansas City bars and descend on the Sprint Center in manic droves Tuesday night.
In other words, it's going to be a good one. Best of all -- and true to clichéd form -- we're going to learn a lot.