UK Men's Basketball

‘It was defense’: Duke drubbing was UK’s worst defensive showing of the Calipari era

John Calipari laments UK’s inability force turnovers

Kentucky forced just four turnovers in its 118-84 loss to Duke in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Head coach John Calipari said his team is not causing enough havoc on defense.
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Kentucky forced just four turnovers in its 118-84 loss to Duke in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Head coach John Calipari said his team is not causing enough havoc on defense.

In John Calipari’s first nine seasons as UK’s head coach, no team scored more than 100 points against his Wildcats.

No opponent had beaten one of his Kentucky teams by more than 30 points, and only two had defeated the Cats by more than 20. That was over a total of 339 games.

Each time a Calipari-coached UK team played its first game of the season against a ranked opponent, no such foe had scored more than 78 points and no such opponent had won by more than seven.

All of that was obliterated Tuesday night, and the annihilation was apparent almost from the tip.

Need a single play to sum up No. 4 Duke’s 118-84 victory over No. 2 UK? There were plenty.

There were mental lapses in transition that led to points. There were breakdowns in the half-court defense that led to points. The Wildcats’ defensive struggles started, quite literally, as soon as a Duke player touched the ball for the first time: Cameron Reddish brought down a defensive rebound, and UK’s Ashton Hagans fouled him nearly 90 feet from the basket.

A little later — after Reddish had already made one three-pointer — UK’s defense gave him all kinds of room to sink another. That made it 14-8 Blue Devils.

A little while after that, Zion Williamson — matched up with EJ Montgomery on the perimeter — made a move that almost knocked the UK freshman off his feet before gliding to the basket for a layup. That made it 22-10 Blue Devils.

About a minute after that, RJ Barrett took Tyler Herro off the dribble with ease and finished it off at the basket. That made it 27-10 Blue Devils.

There were still nearly 12 minutes left in the first half, and Duke’s highly touted freshman trio had already established their dominance against a Kentucky team that, for once, had the experience edge.

Graduate transfer Reid Travis was the only Cat made available to reporters afterward.

“It was tough when you go down like that to start a game,” he said. “Obviously, we were all very excited, very hyped up for that game. It’s kind of a blow to your chest. I feel like — as we mature as a team — we’ll be able to take those blows and we’ll flip it. We’ll see that we’re never really out of the game. Step up the defense, get a stop here, then go to the bucket at the other end.

“I think that will just be the maturity of our team.”

It wasn’t there Tuesday night.

Seemingly every UK gain on offense was met with futility at the other end.

With the Cats trailing by 16 points late in the first half, Barrett was left all alone at the top of the key. He got the ball, and by the time UK’s Quade Green got near him, he had let loose. His three-pointer fell to give the Blue Devils a 45-26 lead, and there was still 5:43 left to play before halftime.

Calipari called a timeout, took a couple of steps off the sideline, and just stood there, silently, looking around at all five Wildcats on the court with his arms raised in a “What was that?” gesture.

Less than a minute later, Williamson blew by Travis on the perimeter and finished off an easy basket while Montgomery never left his feet as the help defense under the basket.

Calipari didn’t even get out of his seat.

“I told them, I said in one of the huddles, ‘I think you guys thought this was going to be easy,’” the UK coach said afterward. “I haven’t had many of these kind of games, but I’ve had a few. The most that you learn from this is they wanted it more than we wanted it.”

Calipari’s always-young UK teams often have a tough game toward the very beginning of the season, especially with the inception of this Champions Classic event seven years ago.

Since then, his Cats have always played a ranked team no later than the third game of the season. The most points one of those teams had scored on Kentucky came when No. 2 Michigan State beat the top-ranked Cats, 78-74, in the third game of the 2013-14 season.

Duke matched that number with 14:38 left in the second half Tuesday night when Barrett’s and-one gave the Blue Devils a 78-47 lead.

With 7:36 left in the game, Barrett hit a three-pointer to make it 100-70. The No. 1-ranked recruit in the 2018 class finished with 33 points. Only five opposing players have scored more in a single game during the Calipari era.

“It’s difficult because he’s a physical player, and he puts it up in the refs’ hands a lot of the time, as far as the way he’s attacking you,” Travis said. “And it makes it difficult to guard as far as staying in front of him without fouling. And he puts a lot of pressure at the rim. So, as a player, you’ve just got to be able move your feet and trust that you’re help side is going to come over and try to help you, alter his shot when he gets up to the rim.

“I think that’s something we didn’t do well tonight. The primary defender can work as hard as he wants, but we also need guys flying in there helping him out, as well.”

Forty seconds after Barrett got Duke to the 100-point mark, Williamson’s driving layup gave the Blue Devils a 102-70 lead. That was the most an opposing team had scored against a Calipari-coached team at Kentucky. There were still nearly seven minutes to play.

Williamson finished with 28 points.

“He’s a big and physical player. He’s fast, and he has a lot of tools. It’s a challenge,” Travis said. “We all had to work — I think it’s by committee, as far as guys coming in from help side and trying to stay on him one on one. I think that was great for us — for our first game, to play somebody like that. It’s only going to help us get better.”

There’s obviously a lot of room for growth, and 30-some more games to do the growing.

The 34-point loss eclipsed an 88-58 drubbing at Tennessee in 2013 — the game immediately after Nerlens Noel was lost for the rest of that season — as Calipari’s largest margin of defeat as Kentucky’s head coach. Duke shot 54.4 percent from the floor, 46.2 percent from three-point range, and committed just four turnovers.

Asked which side of the court concerned him the most Tuesday night, Calipari was clear.

“It was defense,” he said. “Even in the exhibition games we didn’t create turnovers. I said that to the staff. There’s something that we’re missing here because we’re not creating any turnovers. … I mean, four turnovers? Either they’re the greatest ball-handling team in the history of basketball, or we’re not creating enough havoc. It doesn’t mean just spread the court, but how you’re playing in the half-court, how you’re reacting to passes. You’re reacting quicker.

“This is one that you watch the tape, learn from it — boom — move on.”

Most points by opposing player in Calipari era

40 — Elston Turner (Texas A&M)

37 — Corey Allmond (Sam Houston State)

36 — J.J. Frazier (Georgia)

34 — Justin Jackson (North Carolina)

34 — Sindarius Thornwell (South Carolina)

33 — R.J. Barrett (Duke)

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