UK Men's Basketball

Did Duke expose a fatal flaw? Next opponent ponders Kentucky’s blowout loss.

It happens. Or, in trying to sense the inference, perhaps something that rhymes with “it happens.” That’s how the coach of Kentucky’s next opponent characterized Duke’s 34-point beat-down of the Cats on Tuesday night.

“It happens,” Southern Illinois Coach Barry Hinson said Wednesday before adding, “I can’t say what I really want to say.

“It happens to all of us. No one is immune from having one of those nights.”

Hinson has all five starters returning from a team that won 20 games last season. His Southern Illinois team opens its season Friday in Rupp Arena. He called Duke’s 118-84 victory in Kentucky’s made-for-TV opener an example of a “snowball effect.” The Blue Devils rode an avalanche of momentum that buried No. 2 Kentucky.

“It swayed both ways,” Hinson said. “It was one of those nights for Duke, and it was one of those nights for Kentucky.”

The confluence made for a historic — and for Kentucky a horrific — opening game. It was the largest margin of victory for either team in the on again-off again series. It was Duke’s largest number of points in a victory over a ranked opponent since beating No. 12 UCLA 120-84 on Feb. 22, 1998. It was Kentucky’s largest margin of defeat in an opening game since losing 48-10 to Cincinnati on Dec. 18, 1926.

In moments like this, former Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson would caution against runaway despair by saying, “all illness is not death.” Similarly, Hinson, a friend of Calipari for more than 30 years, said the lopsided loss will do Kentucky no long-term damage.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that when we look up in March and April, that the Wildcats will be where they normally are,” the Southern Illinois coach said. “They’re going to be OK.”

And as Calipari did after the game, Hinson pointed out that Duke’s play was well beyond OK.

“They would have beat everybody last night,” he said. “They may have beaten an NBA team last night.”

As he watched Duke rout Kentucky, Hinson’s mind drifted to his team playing the Wildcats next.

“The whole time I’m thinking, oh my gosh, we’re going to have their full attention when we run out there Friday night . . . ,” he said. “We’re not jumping in the kiddie pool. We’re not jumping into the public pool. We’re not jumping into an Olympic pool. We’re jumping into the ocean in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. We’ll find out a lot about our team.”

Such preseason publications as Street & Smith’s, Lindy’s and Blue Ribbon picked Southern Illinois to finish second or third in the Missouri Valley Conference. Loyola of Chicago, which advanced to the Final Four last spring, is the favorite.

Southern Illinois’ five returning starters include all-conference candidate Armon Fletcher, a member of the league’s all-defensive team in guard Sean Lloyd, and the nephew of Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen (Kavion Pippen). A fourth player, Thik Bol, made the Missouri Valley’s all-defensive team in 2016-17. Knee surgery sidelined him all of last season.

Like Kentucky, Southern Illinois got the benefit of extra practice by playing exhibition games in the Caribbean this past August. The Salukis played three games in Cuba.

“We think we can make a run at our conference championship,” Hinson said. “And we wanted to put together a non-conference schedule that would prepare us for that.”

Three days after playing at Kentucky, Southern Illinois has a home game Monday against Buffalo, which lost to UK in the 2018 NCAA Tournament and received votes in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll. Later this month in the Las Vegas Holiday Invitational, the Salukis could play Nevada, which is ranked No. 7 in that poll.

The first challenge is Kentucky. And no matter how decisively Duke outclassed Kentucky, Hinson expects a challenge.

Of UK’s 34-point loss to Duke, he said, “I don’t think it’s an indication in any way, shape or form of what Coach Cal’s got on the floor. We expect to see a Kentucky blue that we’ve always respected.”

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