We’ve had the fun house that is Big Blue Madness. Then came the glorified pickup game that is Blue-White. Then two exhibition games. Then the season began with two dress rehearsals.
Kentucky’s basketball season gets serious Tuesday night with a game against not only another team ranked in the top five, but against an opponent that’s like none other: Duke.
To borrow a term from John Calipari, this game will require “ballin’.”
Calipari put this Kentucky-Duke game in the context of separating the men from the boys, wheat from the chaff or whatever label you prefer for a defining moment.
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“It’s time for us to learn who’s who,” Calipari said Monday.
If everything that has happened up to now was experimentation for another freshman-dependent Kentucky team, Duke is the control group. Seven McDonald’s All-Americans (more than any other college team), a celebrated coach (Mike Krzyzewski) and a rich history make the Blue Devils a truth machine: There will be no faking it.
Calipari saw this as an acid test for how Kentucky should play this season.
“We’re not going to change a lot,” he said. “We need to know if what we’re doing will really work. Let’s do it, and let’s do it for a whole game.”
It’s reasonable to assume, the reverse is true. Kentucky will test Duke players and Krzyzewski’s X-and-O ideas for this season.
Apparently, Krzyzewski’s search for an optimal approach has taken unusual turns.
You’re going to have two driving teams. Two teams that are going to drive, drive, drive. So the game will probably take two-and-a-half hours because there are going to be fouls.
“He is mixing up their defenses like I’ve never seen,” said Calipari, who suggested that Duke might play some zone rather than its signature man-to-man denial at times.
While Kentucky-Duke almost guarantees high drama, Calipari did not seem to expect basketball that is appealing to the eye.
“You’re going to have two driving teams,” he said. “Two teams that are going to drive, drive, drive.
“So the game will probably take two-and-a-half hours because there are going to be fouls. We’re going to foul, and they’re going to foul.”
With superior players in most games, Calipari welcomes the expectation of more tightly called games.
“Call the fouls,” he said. “Make us adjust. Maybe we have to play zone. That’s my job. Figure it out.”
11-9Kentucky’s lead over Duke in the teams’ all-time series
Both teams are blessed with heralded guards: Tyler Ulis, who will be playing in his hometown of Chicago, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe for Kentucky; Grayson Allen, whose 54 points in the first two games was one shy of the Duke record held by Johnny Dawkins, and junior Matt Jones for the Blue Devils.
UK’s star of stars in the freshman class, big man Skal Labissiere, will face a front line measuring 7-foot (Marshall Plumlee), 6-9 (Amile Jefferson) and 6-9 (Brandon Ingram). Plus, Duke has size in the backcourt with two 6-5 guards.
“That sounds like our team last year,” Calipari said. “Skal will have trouble with Plumlee. He plays very physical.”
Trouble — not cruise control — is what Kentucky-Duke is about.
“This is a grit game,” Calipari said. “A grind-it game. They do a great job wedging on rebound. They’ll wedge you all the way to the cheeerleaders. So if you’re not ready to fight, they’re getting the offensive rebounds.”
During the fun portion of the early season (victories over Albany and NJIT), five Kentucky players averaged double-digit points. The most pleasant surprise, judging by fan reaction, was Derek Willis. He averaged 12.5 points, each score accompanied by rapturous cheers.
This led Calipari to direct some friendly banter at Willis, who previously made only cameo appearances in games. “I’m happy I’ve got Derek Willis on my team,” the UK coach said he told Willis. “He laughed. But, OK, let’s do it here, now (against Duke).”
Also, Calipari said, Murray and Briscoe must know that the competition will be less forgiving. If they foul in a drive-drive-drive game, they will have to go to the bench.
Calipari called for Alex Poythress to show how he’s an “elite athlete.”
Then the UK coach added, “I don’t care about anything else. When people watch you, they say, ‘That is an athlete.’”
Poythress did just that the last time Kentucky played Duke. In only his second game as a freshman, he scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds. His nine baskets remain a career high. It was the first of four straight games in which Poythress scored 20 or more points. Since that streak, he’s scored 20 or more points only twice.
Noting the anterior cruciate ligament Poythress tore last December, Calipari’s voice then took on the tone of a protective parent.
“He’s had a good career,” Calipari said before returning to coach mode. “Now, it’s time to be great.”
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Duke
What: Champions Classic
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: United Center in Chicago
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 2-0, Duke 2-0
Series: Kentucky leads 11-9
Last meeting: Duke won 75-68 on Nov. 13, 2012, in Atlanta.