On opening night of the 2018-19 men’s college basketball season, the theory that has animated Kentucky men’s basketball in the John Calipari era was resoundingly confirmed.
As Calipari has contended throughout UK’s one-and-done era, elite talent, even if completely inexperienced, provides a more likely path to success than a veteran but less-physically gifted roster.
Alas, unfortunately for Cal and the Cats, it was Duke and its lavishly-hyped 2018 freshman class proving the point at Kentucky’s expense.
Behind breathtaking college hoops debuts from RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish — three of the top five-ranked recruits in the class of 2018 — No. 4 Duke obliterated No. 2 Kentucky 118-84 before a heavily partisan and stunned UK crowd of 18,907 in the State Farm Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
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Barrett, a left-handed, 6-foot-7 Canadian, repeatedly drove through Kentucky defenders to finish at the rim. He also drilled four of eight three-pointers en route to 33 points.
Williamson, a freakishly bouncy 6-7, 285 pounder, soared above UK for dunks and rebounds and muscled in buckets through taller Wildcats defenders. The Spartanburg, S.C. product finished with 28 points on 11-for-13 shooting.
Reddish, a smooth 6-7 wing, was more understated than his classmates but still poured in a “quiet” 22 points.
As a team, UK needed two Immanuel Quickley free throws with 54 seconds left in the game to outscore Duke’s freshman “big three” 84-83.
In the postgame news conference, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s Calipari had a meeting of the minds over what they had witnessed.
Krzyzewski did not even wait to be asked a question. “We played great. We played great,” he said.
Said Calipari: “I’ve got to give them credit. I told Mike after the game ‘You guys played great.’”
The game had been billed as Duke’s freshman talent vs. Kentucky’s veteran core. Where the Blue Devils frosh dazzled, UK’s veterans struggled.
The three sophomores who played key roles on last season’s UK Sweet 16 team — PJ Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green — never got going.
Only Washington started the game. The three UK vets combined for only nine points — eight by Washington.
The working theory of many of us entering the game was that Kentucky’s experience likely gave it the advantage in an opener vs. Duke, but the Blue Devils’ elite young talent would presumably give the men of Krzyzewski more room to grow.
Well, if Duke’s freshmen are already that much better than UK, what now?
It’s never wise to overreact to one result, especially a November game in a sport where the only contests that matter are played in the spring.
Some of the things that went wrong for Kentucky should be easily fixable.
UK’s defense was atrocious. The Cats continually got beat in transition and couldn’t stay in front of (talented) drivers.
Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones quarterbacked Duke with poise, finishing with seven assists and no turnovers. The Blue Devils only turned the ball over four times the entire game as a team.
“Either they are the greatest ball-handling team in the history of basketball, or we aren’t creating enough havoc,” Calipari said.
The Kentucky coach seemed especially bothered by fact that Duke continually beat Kentucky to contested rebounds and 50-50 balls.
“I thought one of the advantages we had was rebounding, but they beat us to offensive rebounds, balls I thought we should have gotten,” Calipari said.
The good news is that enhanced effort is a solution to all the above problems.
It might not be as easy to fix some other issues exposed Tuesday night.
Where Jones directed the game masterfully, Kentucky freshman lead guards Ashton Hagans (two points, four assists, three turnovers) and Quickley (six points, all from free throws, one assist) were not as assured.
The sophomore guard, Green (0-for-4 field goals, one point), had a tough night, too.
Football’s saying that, if you have multiple quarterbacks, you really have no quarterback, might apply to the UK point guard spot, too.
“I grabbed (Hagans and Quickley) in the hallway,” Calipari said, (and said) ‘I’ve got to spend more time with you guys, get you guys on the same page with all of us on how you need to play.”
It seems obvious that Kentucky does not have players on its roster as talented as Duke’s Barrett, Williamson and Reddish.
For the Cats to have a chance to reverse Tuesday night’s outcome should the teams meet again in March Madness, Kentucky obviously has to become a team whose sum exceeds its parts.
The beauty of college basketball is, sometimes that happens.
Said Calipari: “I told (the UK players), I got outcoached. You got outplayed. We will watch this tape, and then we will move on.”
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory
Southern Illinois at No. 2 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m. Friday
TV: SEC Network