The narrative coming into the early-season Champions Classic Kentucky-Duke showdown was simple enough.
This was a “show us what you’ve got” game.
And so, now that the envelope has been opened, if you’re Kentucky, what you’ve got is quite a lot.
If you’re Kentucky and it’s 2015-16, then you are quick and fast and athletic and you have maybe the best point guard in the country (Tyler Ulis) and maybe the best backcourt in the country (Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe) and a pair of outrageously athletic pieces (Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress) and at least one skilled big man (Skal Labissiere) who didn’t play all that well Tuesday night but is going to be really good. Really good.
“Good win,” John Calipari, the relaxed and happy Kentucky coach, said after his team’s 74-63 win over the Blue Devils. “Good win.”
Good win? Big Blue Nation would take it a step or two beyond that, no doubt. This was Duke we’re talking about. Kentucky is ranked No. 2. The Blue Devils are ranked No. 5. You can make the argument that no two programs have dominated college basketball in recent years the way these two teams have, and that makes their sporadic but important rivalry all the more interesting.
“We prepared for this game like we prepare for every other game,” Calipari insisted Tuesday. “You can ask my guys.”
That may be true, but it’s also true that even Calipari said Monday that he and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski would find out about their teams as much as you can find out in a November game.
I asked my staff after the game what they thought. And they said, ‘We’re deeper than we thought.’
If Duke learned, as Krzyzewski said afterward, that the “game was a little bigger” than his younger Blue Devils were ready for, Kentucky learned that its players loved the moment. Ulis, a sophomore but in his first year as “the” point guard, scored 18 points, dished six assists and did not commit a turnover. Jamal Murray scored 16 points and dished five assists. Even playing with cramps, Briscoe scored 12 points and had two steals.
“They have three point guards,” said Krzyzewski, meaning Kentucky plays three point guards on the floor at the same time, though there is no doubt who is really the point guard.
“I asked my staff after the game what they thought,” Caliapri said, “And they said, ‘We’re deeper than we thought.’”
That might have been the most important thing we learned from Tuesday. The star of Kentucky’s first half was Lee, the 6-foot-9 junior, who grabbed nine rebounds and scored six points in the first 20 minutes. Lee did what Lee does when he is playing well. He ran the floor like few men his size. And he jumped out of the gym. In one 80-second span, he grabbed two lobs and threw them down. The second gave UK a 35-29 lead with 1:33 left in the first half.
Isaac Humphries, the 17-year-old Australian, offered a first-half boost and ended up with three rebounds and two blocked shots in 12 minutes. Poythress had nine points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes off the bench. Derek Willis struggled a little in his seven minutes, but Calipari said afterward he likes the way the junior is playing.
Defensively, Kentucky bothered Duke’s Grayson Allen, the sophomore guard who scored 54 points in the Blue Devils’ first two games. Tuesday night, Allen missed all nine of his first-half shots and finished the night just two of 11.
“I thought they were stronger than we were,” Krzyzewski said.
Stronger with the ball. Stronger in transition. Stronger in their mental makeup. It’s November, of course. It’s a long season. But judging by its first game on a big stage, you have to say that this Calipari team looks a lot like his previous Calipari teams. And that’s a good thing.
“If we learn to fight every possession, play the guy before he catches the ball, be alert defensively, stay in the stance and really bounce and play off of one another, we’re going to be really good,” the coach said Tuesday, being the coach. “If we don’t, we’ll be an average team. We’ll be an average team.”
Tuesday night, in a show-us game, Kentucky showed that it is quite a bit better than average.