UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Kentucky-Duke a classic waiting to happen

Tuesday night's Champions Classic in Indianapolis was unfortunately a one-night stand of the doubleheader variety, not a more satisfying tournament format where the two winners get the chance to go head-to-head.

Not to worry, of course. If the heavens align with the stars and the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee does its job, we college basketball fans will get our wish come March or April.

After all, No. 4-ranked Duke was impressive in beating No. 19 Michigan State 81-71 in the first game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse before No. 1 Kentucky not only blew the doors off No. 5 Kansas 72-40 but blew away the skeptics in a jaw-dropping nightcap.

Kentucky versus Duke is always an enticing and historic match-up, after all. That might even be more true this year, considering not just the talent both teams demonstrated Tuesday, but their noticeable upside.

Start with the current talk of the hoops world, Kentucky, which dominated Kansas so completely that the Jayhawks shot 19.6 percent for the game and 13 percent in the second half.

And even if you've already heard this stunning stat, it bears repeating: Kentucky blocked as many shots (11) as Kansas made (11).

To be fair, despite its top-five ranking, Kansas is not a top-five team. Bill Self lost Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid without comparable replacements.

The Jayhawks weren't big enough to contend with Kentucky's size — nor is practically any other team — or mature enough to stop trying to drive the ball to the basket even if most of those attempts ended in facials.

Kentucky is just so darn tall. John Calipari's team doesn't just have size; it has waves and waves of size. Remember when fans lamented that there were no more big men in college basketball? Kentucky has made up for that vacuum and then some.

And yet, Kentucky didn't have the best big man on the floor Tuesday night. That honor belonged to Duke fab freshman Jahlil Okafor, the 6-foot-11 post man from Chicago, who scored 17 points against Michigan State, making eight of his 10 shots.

Okafor is a true low-post player. He operates with his back to the basket and has the footwork and enviable agility to either spin around or out-quick defenders. The Tim Duncan comparisons are apt. Okafor isn't just a load underneath; he's a whole range of problems.

Nor is Okafor a one-man band. Duke's other two heralded freshmen lived up to their pregame billing Tuesday night.

Justise Winslow, the 6-6 forward from Houston, demonstrated toughness and athletic ability on the way to 15 points, six rebounds and three assists. When Okafor picked up his fourth foul with 8:59 left, Tyus Jones, a 6-1 guard out of Minnesota, scored 11 points in the next five minutes, extending a 58-51 Duke lead to 74-61.

Like every other team in America, Duke lacks Kentucky's overall size and depth. It does, however, figure to get better as Okafor (30 minutes Tuesday), Winslow (36) and Jones (31) clock more time together.

Plus, the Devils can spread the floor and have already shown they can make three-pointers. Through three games, Mike Krzyzewski's team is 32-for-67 from beyond the arc for 47.7 percent. Against Michigan State, with Okafor commanding defensive attention inside, Duke hit seven of 14 three-point shots.

This isn't to say Duke was as impressive as Kentucky on Tuesday. No college basketball team in recent memory was as impressive as Kentucky was against the Jayhawks. Were the Cats and Blue Devils to meet this week or the final week of March, Kentucky would be favored, and justifiably so.

Still, it would be fun this year to add another UK-Duke classic to the list. April 6 in Indy would be as good a time as any.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments