I’ve been watching college basketball religiously for well over two decades, and the more that I think about it, the more I realize that I don’t think I ever remember a result quite as stunning as what we saw from Duke-Kentucky on Tuesday night.
Take the two most tradition-rich programs in college basketball. Take the two most talented teams top-to-bottom in the sport. Take two Hall of Fame coaches and put them on the court together, and what do you get?
A 34-point blowout. Huh?
Only that’s what happened on Tuesday night, and there really is nothing else to say that hasn’t already been said. It was a game where Duke was so thorough and dominant, it’s leading to all kinds of hyperbole and Wednesday morning quarterbacking from college basketball fans: Is Duke the Bama of college basketball (no, please stop). Is Kentucky’s season over before it begins (no, please stop). And is Zion Williamson the evolutionary next step in the sport of basketball, with 6’7, 285 lb. cyborgs taking over the sport from now until the end of time? No, please stop. There has only been one Zion Williamson in the history of basketball. And what he does is not replicable.
So yes, Duke was the far better team on Tuesday night, and yes, they should be the unquestioned No. 1 team in the country going forward. But it’s also safe to play the season, and let’s not just hand them the national championship trophy now.
To quote Denny Green, “If you want to crown their ass, crown ‘em!” but I’m not ready to do that yet. Even if again, they truly put forth a transcendent, unbelievable performance on Tuesday night.
Still, there are reasons to still to tune into college hoops this season, and if you’re a Kentucky fan (which most everyone reading this article is) to not give up on the season yet.
Here are six reasons why.
(Also, for a full, additional breakdown of the game, download today’s episode of the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast, which was recorded right after the game)
Duke probably just played their best game of the season
Please, please, PLEASE understand this is not intended to be a shot at Duke. Their play on Tuesday night was simply mesmerizing. They were better than Kentucky in every way a basketball team could be, on offense, defense, special teams – woops, not that last one. But you get the point.
Still, right now I think it’s fair to say that there is a tier-system in college basketball: It’s Duke and everyone else (something we’ll hit on later). But I also think it’s fair to wonder if Duke just so happened to play something close to their version of a perfect game. And we just happened to see it on college basketball’s biggest stage on opening night.
You may think I’m crazy, but hear me out.
First off, I don’t think we’ll ever see a better three-point shooting performance from Duke’s “big three” than we did on Tuesday night. I’ve been watching Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish play to varying degrees for three or four years now throughout their high school careers, and none was ever an elite shooter. Heck, I remember watching all three at the Nike Hoops Summit just in this past April and thinking the same thing.
Yet there they were on Tuesday night, shooting 7 for 16 combined from beyond the arc. That’s 44 percent. And obviously once the those threes starting falling, it completely altered Kentucky’s game-plan.
It is also hard to imagine it’s replicable over the course of the season.
With all due respect to how much all three have clearly improved in a few short months on Duke’s campus, no one improves that much, that quickly. And I find it hard to believe that they will regularly duplicate that performance. Especially against elite teams. Especially when those elite teams know that they need to prepare for the possibility that those three guys can make open jumpers.
Secondly, Duke only had four turnovers all night. Part of that I’m sure was a lack of urgency on Kentucky’s end defensively (at least that’s what John Calipari claimed in the postgame press conference) but regardless, again, I find it hard to believe that a team with this many freshman, will be this mistake-free going forward.
One thing Im wondering after last night: Did we already see Duke's best game this season? Yes, they are the UNQUESTIONED No. 1 team in the country. But their "Big Three" shot 46% from 3, they had just 4 turnovers and every role player was flawless. Lot to live up to for 40 games
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) November 7, 2018
Finally, Duke’s non-freshmen all played their roles masterfully. Alex O’Connell hit three’s, Marques Bolden was, umm, better than expected, and Jack White had nine points and 11 rebounds in 30 minutes of play.
Seriously, read that last sentence again. Jack freakin’ White nearly dropped a double-double! If you’d had called Vegas to ask for a line on that, they wouldn’t have even been able to give you a number. They’d have said “Who the heck is Jack White?”
Again, Duke was phenomenal on Tuesday night and I don’t want to take anything away from them. But to ask them to be that good from beyond the arc, that good taking care of the ball, and get that much production from their role players for 40-straight games this season seems like a lot to ask for.
John Calipari didn’t put Kentucky in the best position to win from the beginning
As soon as the broadcast showed Kentucky’s starting lineup of Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, P.J. Washington and Reid Travis, I knew the Wildcats were in trouble. Why? Because to me that starting lineup signaled one thing: John Calipari was putting out a lineup that he believed best matched up with Duke, as opposed to the one that best accentuated Kentucky’s strengths.
Again, this is just my opinion, but it felt like Cal was playing from a place of weakness rather than strength. That he was playing not to lose, rather than to win. That’s just my opinion, and you’re free to disagree.
Still, let’s take a deep dive, and in doing so, I want to be clear on one thing: I feel bad going after 18-year-old kids personally. But as John Calipari says, “You can’t hide at Kentucky.” And certainly not after a night like last night.
With all due respect to Ashton Hagans, he wasn’t ready to be on that stage. I truly believe that Calipari inserted him into the lineup because he is the Wildcats’ best defensive player at the point guard position, and that the hope was that Hagans would create chaos on Duke’s primary ball-handlers. The only problem was, not only did Hagans not create that chaos, he also – at this point in his career – isn’t ready to bring anything to the offensive end of the court. I don’t care what the mock drafts say (which, in my opinion, have him ranked absurdly high), but right now he has next to no usable offensive skills at the college level. Yes, he’s an elite athlete. But he can’t run an offense. He can’t create his own offense against good defenders. And he can’t shoot. That’s a deadly trifecta against a team as good as Duke.
It’s the same with Tyler Herro. I love the idea of him providing instant offense off the bench like he did in the Bahamas. And I’m sure that in spots he can and should be used as a starter. But to me, moving him to the starting lineup takes more away from your bench than it adds to your starting lineup.
That’s why I would have liked to see Calipari stick with most of what worked for this team in the Bahamas. Immanuel Quickley is the best table-setting point guard on the team, so let him run the offense. Let Quade Green play at the two. Not only does he provide at least a fraction of the offense that Herro does, but it also allows Herro to remain a spark of the bench. You’re giving up size, but you can make up for it with P.J. Washington, Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson. If you want to insert Nick Richards in there like in the Bahamas, fine. Although I do think the right three guys started in the frontcourt.
But the point remains the same. The starting lineup that Kentucky put out there on Tuesday night did not give the Wildcats the best chance to win. It might cut it against good SEC teams. But it won’t cut it against a team as talented as Duke.
P.J. Washington will not play a worse game all season
To me, this was maybe the single most shocking revelation from Tuesday night outside the final score: Not only did P.J. Washington not play well. He stopped competing. I figured you’d see hell freeze over, you’d see pigs fly, you’d see Coach K sprout a gray hair or two before that actually happened.
Only here we are. Washington finished the night with eight points and two rebounds. And as my buddy Nick Coffey said in a post-Champions Classic podcast we recorded last night, it was a “quiet” eight points. Those two rebounds also tied for his lowest total last year, and he never had less than three rebounds in any of the Wildcats’ final 15 games last season.
Point being, Tuesday night was a statistical anomaly for Washington. But it was also a different kind of anomaly as well.
That’s because of all the things that I expected to see, I never imagined a world where Washington would stop competing… only that’s exactly what he did on Tuesday night. The one thing you could always count on last season was for Washington to play hard, to bust his butt… to be an alpha. He didn’t always go for 20 and 10. But he always played like he expected to go for 20 and 10, if that makes. And he showed the same attitude throughout the trip to the Bahamas, where he was probably the team’s best all-around player.
Now flip that with what we saw Tuesday night in Indianapolis. Serious question: What was P.J. Washington’s best moment from that game? I’m not sure one exists.
That’s also why if I was Calipari, the first thing I’d do when I reconnected with this team is sit down Washington, show him his body language on tape and have a long talk with him.
He’s a veteran and a leader and he needs to be better.
The good thing is, it’s hard to imagine him being worse.
On second thought, you probably won’t see a worse game from anyone outside of Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis
And if there’s a silver lining here it’s that: As a collective group, I’m not sure that Kentucky can play worse. It helps that they probably won’t face a better team all season (more on that coming below).
Now look, these individual players obviously have weaknesses. Quade Green and Tyler Herro struggle to score against length. The good news is, name me another team that has multiple wings like Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, who have a combined wingspan the size of Delaware and can switch on every pick and roll? That teams doesn’t exist. No team has three future lottery picks on the wing.
Down low, Nick Richards (who we haven’t even talked about) and P.J. Washington were out-toughed. But I’m pretty sure they won’t be fighting for rebounds with a 6’8, 285 lb. power forward any time soon. Mainly because another one doesn’t exist.
Look, there are a lot of good teams in college basketball.
But nobody can do the things that Duke can.
Speaking of which…
Duke is the best team Kentucky will face the entire regular season
As I mentioned up top, I don’t think Duke is some unbeatable juggernaut. But knowing what I know about everyone else in college basketball, it’s clear that their ceiling is significantly higher than everyone else’s.
Seriously, all you had to do was watch closely last night. Kansas was the team (besides Kentucky) that most people felt like was the No. 1 team in the country coming into the season. They looked really, really, REALLY good against Michigan State, and the 92-87 final score wasn’t indicative of how one-sided that game was. At the same time, Kansas at its best doesn’t have anything close to the gear that Duke did on Tuesday same. Anyone who watched both games Tuesday night could see that.
I also watched North Carolina, a consensus Top 10 team coming into the season (frankly, I’d have had them a bit lower). Yes, they were on the road, but they have major questions in their backcourt. Even at their best, the Tar Heels are not in the same stratosphere as Duke.
Maybe Gonzaga is close, but they are also injury-riddled right now. We might find out exactly how those two teams matchup since they could be playing in the Maui Invitational in a few weeks. I like Auburn. But they aren’t close to Duke. Same with Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada, whoever.
Point being, it’s a long season ahead. But one consensus seems pretty clear: Duke’s best is better than anyone else’s.
Finally, Kentucky will learn from this game
In hindsight, maybe it all came too easily early for Kentucky. They had four blowout wins in the Bahamas (Mega Bemax is SO dropping in my polls after this one), and they more or less sleepwalked through their two exhibition games.
Maybe they assumed that they could flip a switch whenever they wanted. And maybe against some teams they can. They did learn however that against some teams they can’t, and Duke is one of them.
That’s also why in the long-run, this game might end up as a learning tool. Not just for their upcoming games, but on the possibility that they face Duke again going forward.
Ultimately, we see teams in all sports learn from a loss all the time, and there’s no doubt that Kentucky will learn from this one. There’s also no doubt that if they were to face the Blue Devils again, they will come out more prepared, more focused more… ready to go.
Yes, there are plenty of reasons for Kentucky fans to be frustrated. But it isn’t time to panic. And it isn’t time to give up on the season.
It’s just one game.
And let’s be honest: There’s nowhere to go but up from here.