Three takeaways from Kentucky’s shocking 118-84 loss to the Duke Blue Devils in the Champions Classic in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse:
1. Wow! That’s all you can say about Duke.
Talk about living up to its billing. And fast. Duke was judged to have the best freshmen class in the nation coming into the 2018-19 season thanks to rookies RJ Barrett (ranked No. 1 by most recruiting services), Cameron Reddish (ranked No. 2) and Zion Williamson (ranked No. 3). In their first game of college basketball, the terrific trio played that way and then some.
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Barrett scored a game-high 33 points and dished six assists. Williamson scored 28 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Reddish scored 22 points, made three three-pointers and was a perfect seven of seven from the foul line.
Williamson was as advertised, a 272-pounder who can move and jump. He skied for one rebound in the first half that was particularly impressive. He also made nimble moves to the basket that you would not expect of someone so big. He’s just a different kind of player.
Duke scored 59 points in the first half, the most against a John Calipari-coached Kentucky team. The Blue Devils scored 118 points for the game, the most against a John Calipari-coached Kentucky team. Ten minutes into the game, Duke led 34-13. And it didn’t get much better after that.
Duke was supposed to be too young to play this well so soon. If the young Blue Devils are this good now, how good might they be in March? Well, it’s a long season. A lot of things can happen. But Mike Krzyzewski said after the game, “These guys are easy to coach” and judging by the way they played against Kentucky, they’re a lot of fun to coach.
2. Wow! That’s all you can say about Kentucky.
Talk about a dud. After the addition of grad transfer Reid Travis, then the way the team blasted through the Bahamas, there was plenty of feel-good hype leading into not only Tuesday’s marquee matchup but the season as well. Instead, the nation’s No. 2 team in the preseason polls did an immediate face plant.
The Cats shot just 40.6 percent. They were a chilly one of 10 from beyond the three-point line in the first half and four of 17 for the game. (Remember, this is the same team that was one of 13 from three in the exhibition win over Transylvania.) The Cats were outrebounded 38-37 and never led.
Defense was the biggest culprit, however. UK didn’t play any. Duke shot 54.4 percent from the floor and made 12 of 26 three-point attempts. And here’s the most damaging stat: Duke committed just four turnovers. That’s the fewest turnovers the Cats have forced in a game in the Calipari era.
“We didn’t force many turnovers in the two exhibition games,” said Calipari afterward. “I was telling my staff that.”
On the night, Duke averaged a mind-blowing 1.409 points per possession, the most by an opponent in the Calipari era. The previous high was Tennessee’s 1.360 in the Vols’ 88-58 win over Knetucky on Feb. 16, 2013. That was the game after UK lost Nerlens Noel for the season to a knee injury. That team ended up in the NIT.
This team won’t end up in the NIT. It’s just one game, the first game of a very long season.
Which leads to the third takeaway:
3. Job 1 will be getting Kentucky’s confidence back up.
This had to be a blow to the ego. As usual, Calipari’s club is loaded with freshman. Keldon Johnson led the Cats with 23 points. But he needed 16 shots to get his 23 points. Ashton Hagans contributed just two points and turned the ball over three times. Tyler Herro was one of six from three-point range. Immanuel Quickley missed all three of his shots from the floor. EJ Montgomery scored eight points, but also committed three turnovers.
Meanwhile, Duke’s freshman were driving and dishing, throwing down dunks and swishing threes. After all the hype, one group of freshmen struggled while the other group of freshmen soared. If Coach K may have to bring his guys back to earth a little bit, Calipari may have to build his youngsters back up, starting with Friday’s game against Southern Illinois.
Not that Kentucky’s older players were much better. Reid Travis had a solid game, scoring 22 points and grabbing seven rebounds. But PJ Washington was disappointing, managing just eight points. Quade Green missed all four of his shots from the floor. Nick Richards didn’t score and turned the ball over three times in his 13 minutes.
Truth be told, it was a bad night for all the Cats. It was so bad in fact that the UK fans who packed the arena were already heading to the exits with 11:02 left and Kentucky trailing 91-56.
Truth be told, by that time, John Calipari might have wanted to do the same thing. Afterward, the Kentucky coach said this was the type of game where you watch the tape, learn from it, and move on. Quickly.