During Duke’s 118-84 rout of Kentucky on Tuesday night, a question came to mind: How long will it take Cats fans to cry out in full second-guess indignation: “Why the (heck) did Kentucky move away from an all-freshman approach in order to follow Villanova’s example of relying on experience?!”
While that may be conjecture, UK fans spoke clearly with their feet. At the first television timeout of the second half, more than a few people wearing Kentucky clothing walked up the aisles toward the exits. At the time, Duke led 72-47.
A much larger number of fans — think the long lines to cast ballots in the mid-term election earlier in the day — walked away at the second TV timeout. UK trailed 91-58 with 11:02 left.
Kentucky, which lost an opening game for the first time since a 111-103 defeat to VMI to start the 2008-09 season, played ineffective defense. On offense, the three-point shooting (4-for-17), post-up game and play-making was spotty.
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This combination meant repeated reaches for the record book and a concession from Kentucky.
It was the most points a UK team had given up since losing 121-110 to North Carolina on Dec. 27, 1989. It was the most lopsided UK loss since a 93-52 blowout at Vanderbilt on Feb. 12, 2008.
“Look, I’ve got to give them credit,” UK Coach John Calipari said of the Blue Devils. “I told Mike (Krzyzewski) after, you guys played great.”
Krzyzewski also saw Duke’s excellent play as decisive.
“Well, we played great,” the Duke coach said. “We played great. We start four freshmen. No matter how talented they are, you don’t know what they’re going to do in this environment against an outstanding team and great program. And they responded. They were magnificent.”
Duke’s heralded trio of freshmen — Zion Williamson (28), RJ Barrett (33) and Cam Reddish (22) combined for 83 points. Kentucky’s four veterans — Reid Travis, PJ Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards — combined for 31 points. Travis led that foursome with 22 inconsequential points.
Before this game, there was sound reason to think a greater reliance on veterans would be telling. For all the programs’ celebrated recruiting coups, neither Kentucky nor Duke had advanced to the Final Four in any of the last three NCAA tournaments. Of the 30 starters in the last three national championship games, 23 were either juniors or seniors.
At this year’s Big Ten Media Day, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo offered a thought on the importance of experience.
“People ask why is Duke, why is Kentucky not in Final Fours on a regular basis?” he said. “It’s because teams winning — Villanova, North Carolina — all those teams, 90 percent of them are junior-senior oriented teams. It’s hard to get to the Final Four with all young guys, is what everybody’s finding out.”
For at least this one game, Duke’s freshmen all but mocked Izzo’s suggestion as well as Kentucky.
From the beginning, Duke’s freshmen imposed their will with what looked like simply superior talent. Williamson led the way, drawing oohs from the crowd on more than one occasion.
Calipari summed up the difference succinctly. “We had to run stuff to get good shots,” the UK coach said. “They just kind of spaced the court.”
Kentucky trailed 59-42 at halftime. Duke shot with 55-percent accuracy in the highest-scoring first half by an opponent in the Calipari era (the previous best was North Carolina scoring 51 points against the Cats in Las Vegas two years ago).
Kentucky never led in the first half and trailed by a double-digit margin over the final 14 minutes.
Duke took control immediately. The Blue Devils made their first four shots — three from beyond the arc and all by freshmen.
“I think once they caught fire, hit some shots, got some confidence, they were able to get to the line, start driving us, things like that,” Travis said.
Kentucky’s veterans didn’t score a point until PJ Washington made a free throw with 11:27 left.
Duke’s four heralded freshmen outscored UK’s veterans 51-13 in the half.
UK’s defense was ineffective. The much-discussed on-ball pressure did not materialize. Besides making more than half its shots, Duke committed only three turnovers in the first half. None were forced: a wild outlet pass by Williamson, a push by Barrett on a drive and a walk by Javin DeLaurier as he rushed for an uncontested fast-break dunk.
Duke had only four turnovers in the game.
“Either they’re the greatest ball-handling team in the history of basketball,” Calipari said, “or we’re not creating enough havoc.”
Going into the second half, Kentucky was saddled with its largest halftime deficit since trailing 49-28 at Florida on March 8, 2014. UK lost that game 84-65.
Kentucky went with the lineup of three “bigs” to start the second half. Duke scored the first five points, prompting a UK timeout 57 seconds into the half.
After this break, the rout resumed. Sometimes the disparity in talent had to sting. Like when Williamson engulfed a Nick Richards shot, then threw an outlet that Barrett finished with a three-point play.
Duke reached the 100-point mark with 7:35 left when Barrett made a three-pointer. That put the Blue Devils ahead 100-70.
By then, many in a once large throng of Kentucky fans was gone into the Indiana night.
“They’re a very good team,” Calipari said. “If they play like that, they’re not losing many.”