Where do you even begin?
Kentucky didn’t just get beat by Duke in the Champions Classic, they got whipped, a humiliating and humbling start to the 2018-19 season. What was supposed to be a showcase of the Cats’ experience, talent, and depth instead turned into a 118-84 face plant, the worst loss of the John Calipari era. From start to finish, Duke looked better in all facets of the game, from talent, to execution, and, in many cases, effort. It’s just one game — and the first one of the year at that — but with the national spotlight shining bright, what a horrible way to lose.
If you’re like me, all you’ve got are questions now, so let’s try to find some answers.
1. What happened to the Kentucky team from the Bahamas?
Almost three months ago, the Cats annihilated two European professional teams and two national all-star teams in the Bahamas. Calipari bragged about how those teams were “grown men,” but in retrospect, were they? Or, has Kentucky regressed since then?
There were warning signs in the Cats’ lackluster exhibition wins over Transylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania: poor defense, cold shooting, questionable shot selection, careless ball handling, getting beat to balls. If you’re like me, you tried to chalk it up to the freshmen playing down to their competition or looking ahead to Duke. All of those errors were on full display vs. the Blue Devils. Even if Kentucky’s competition in the Bahamas was way worse than we originally thought, there’s no denying how out of sync the Cats seemed. I saw the team in the tunnel warming up and they looked the part, howling and barking like dogs at the chance to take on Duke. Once on the court, they looked completely lost; all bark, no bite.
2. What happened to Kentucky’s sophomores?
Duke’s trio of freshmen stars RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cameron Reddish exceeded expectations, putting up a combined 83 points, one point shy of Kentucky’s total score. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s trio of sophomore veterans PJ Washington, Nick Richards, and Quade Green combined for only nine points. Given that this was the first game of the season, most believed Kentucky’s experience would be the key factor in the game, but outside of Reid Travis, the returning players were more often than not part of Kentucky’s problem. That’s especially frustrating for PJ Washington, who is supposed to be a leader. Usually, Calipari brings two players with him to address the media after road and neutral site games; last night, he only brought Travis, which speaks volumes.
3. What happened to the backcourt?
Duke’s backcourt was expected to be the weakness Kentucky would expose, but Tre Jones looked far and away the best point guard on the court, dishing out a game-high seven assists. Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, and Quade Green combined for only eight assists and nine points. In terms of efficiency (points + rebounds + assists + steals + blocks – Missed Shots – turnovers), all three were decidedly inefficient, Hagans registering a 2, Quickley 4, and Green -1. In comparison, Reid Travis and Tyler Herro had efficiencies of 22, followed by Keldon Johnson at 19. Cal knows his backcourt needs help.
“I grabbed the two point guards and told them after down in the hallway that I’m going to spend more time with you,” Cal said afterwards. “I’ve got to get you guys on the same page with all of us how we need you to play.”
4. Where was the defense?
By far the most upsetting part of the night was Kentucky’s defense, or lack thereof. The Cats let Duke run all over them, at times seemingly clearing the lane to let the Blue Devils score. Some sobering stats: this is the first time a team has scored 100 points on Kentucky in the Calipari era. It’s also the first time a team has beaten Kentucky by more than 30 points. Ouch.
Expecting a team with several young stars to be a defensive juggernaut this early isn’t fair, but the number of breakdowns and mistakes was alarming to say the least.
“I told them, I said in one of the huddles, I think you guys thought this was going to be easy,” Cal said. “The most that you learn from this is they wanted it more than we wanted it.”
5. Was the moment too big?
Thus far, the defining characteristic of this freshmen class was competitiveness. Keldon Johnson certainly came out fighting, but for the most part, the freshmen balked at their first test. EJ Montgomery got things going at the end of the first half, prompting Calipari to start him in the second, but then reverted. Tyler Herro had 14 points, but nine came in garbage time, and he was only 4-11 from the floor and 1-6 from three-point range.
As the team’s elder spokesman, Reid Travis refused to say the moment was too big for his younger counterparts, but insisted it will be a learning experience.
“I wouldn’t say the moment was too big. Collectively we didn’t get the job done. I don’t know if it was the moment, the hype, but it just wasn’t a game for us tonight. I think as we go back and watch the film, we’ll get better. I love our group of guys and everyone does want to get better. You can tell that this hurt because we do care.”
6. Is this how UCLA and Kansas felt in 2014?
Kentucky delivered similar beatdowns to UCLA and Kansas at the start of the 2014-15 season. Looking around at the giddy Duke fans in the arena made me sympathize with Bruins and Jayhawks fans. Being so completely overwhelmed by an opponent isn’t a familiar feeling for Kentucky fans, even more so when you didn’t see it coming. Ugh.
Speaking of that year…
7. Is Duke that good?
How can you watch that game and not say yes? It pains me to say it, but Duke is not only good, they’re fun to watch. RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson are absolute stars and Kentucky had zero answers for them. Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones were great too.
“I mean, they’re a very good team,” Calipari said afterwards. “If they play like that, they’re not losing many.”
On the sport’s opening night, the Blue Devils firmly established themselves as the coolest team in college basketball and Mike Krzyzewski as the coach who is not only getting the best players, but finding a way to get them to play together. It’s just one game, but right now, that role reversal really sucks.
8. Or is Kentucky that bad?
It may feel like it now, but I refuse to believe Kentucky is as bad as they looked vs. Duke. Hopefully, the loss will serve as a brutal wakeup call for a team that otherwise may not have gotten it until late December or January. It’s hard to imagine as I write this at 4 a.m., but maybe it’s something we’ll even reference come March or April.
9. How crappy do fans that spent all the money on tickets feel?
Judging by the scene here in Indianapolis, pretty crappy. I got to town around 3 p.m. on Tuesday and Kentucky fans were already rolling, gleefully zipping around town on Bird scooters and drinking Tin Roof out of cold beer (it’s true). Eighty percent of Bankers Life Fieldhouse was Kentucky blue, making for a raucous and chill-bump inducing atmosphere before tipoff. Unfortunately, it was all for naught as things quickly crashed back to Earth, leaving the stadium in a shell-shocked silence.
“I wasn’t looking up there, but they do travel,” Calipari said of the BBN in attendance. “And they’ll watch this team more than I’ll watch this tape. But that’s what coaching and playing at Kentucky is about. We represent the whole state, and they take pride in the program, and this hurts. We understand that we’re playing for them. That’s what we do here. And we’ve got a ways to go.”
10. What a bad four-day stretch, huh?
Since Saturday, the Big Blue Nation has been on a roller coaster of emotions. Both the football and basketball teams had a chance to make a statement on the national stage and instead, were humbled by a superior opponent; in tonight’s case, that’s putting it nicely.
So, let’s go beat the heck out of Tennessee on Saturday.