“I can’t stand losing, but it was a good game. I want to thank our fans for making the trip down. I think it helped our team. I thought when we got to three, we’re going to win this. They made their free throws.”
On a night that pitted a young Kentucky team against a veteran Duke team, the difference came down to a few key one-minute stretches. “They don’t understand how hard you have to play every possession…how a minute and a half will cost you a game.”
Before the game even tipped off and the starting line-ups were being announced, a palpable buzz and electricity was building in the arena. Kentucky fans, as they tend to do, flocked to “Catlanta” for a much-anticipated match-up with a bitter rival, Duke. In an environment that both Coach K and John Calipari credited as being similar to a post-season tournament atmosphere, Kentucky fans made their presence known from the start. Loud cheers erupted during the Kentucky starting line-up, and boos that couldn’t even be muffled through a television screen rang out during the Duke starting line-ups. The stage was right for a big time college basketball game between two powerhouse programs. With contrasting personnel, Duke loaded with savvy veterans and Kentucky loaded with talented freshmen, the two teams did not disappoint.
– In the early stages of the game, both teams came out swinging. Duke went to two of their more experienced players early in Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry. Plumlee quickly finished below the basket and Curry hit a three to open up a 5-1 lead for the Blue Devils. Kentucky quickly responded with a solid 8-0 run of their own, sparked by inspired play from Nerlens Noel. Noel brought a level of energy that we haven’t seen before, diving for loose balls on the floor and grabbing difficult rebounds. The run was capped off by a Julius Mays jumper that put Kentucky ahead 9-5.
– From the outset, it was clear that Kentucky focused in on one of the glaring issues in their opening game against Maryland: rebounding. Even though a questionable rebounding team in Duke was still able to gather second chance opportunities at times, the rebounding effort as a whole from the Cats was much better. Kentucky finished the night losing the rebounding battle to Duke (31-30), but the margin was much closer than the previous game.
– Nerlens Noel showed off a more polished post-up game that seems to improve with each game. Noel showcased a variety of moves with his back to the basket that he was able to finish on a consistent basis. Noel’s offensive game has been a point of contention since his arrival in Lexington, but he showed tonight that he is more than just an option on lob plays and clean up baskets for this team. At times during both halves, Kentucky made an effort to feed the ball to Noel below the basket and he delivered more often than not. Noel finished the game with an impressive stat line of 16 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 blocked shots. Perhaps even more impressive? Noel was nearly on the floor from start to finish. Noel played 38 minutes, showing an improved level of fitness. Noel won a lot of fans over tonight with all of the little things he did well, ranging from collecting rebounds in big moments with traffic around the basket, to diving on the ground to keep plays alive for Kentucky. Not to mention, Noel had an unbelievable block late in the game to give Kentucky a crucial defensive stop when they were trying to make their run. And in a stat that has drastically improved in just a short period of time for Noel, he finished the night 6 of 8 from the charity stripe. Between the improved post moves, raising the level of energy he brings to the game, his improved free throw shooting and Calipari’s positive commentary– I think it’s safe to say that Nerlens Noel has been working very hard on all aspects of his game. Good for him.
– Kentucky entered halftime down by just 2 points, but the star of halftime was certainly John Calipari. When asked about how his team could improve defensively, Cal gave a little jab to Duke– saying what every Kentucky fan has probably wanted to say for years on national television. Calipari casually dropped the line, “We know they’re flopping all over the place. In the NBA, they’d all be suspended.” Calipari re-visited his claim during his post-game comments. “It was a joke. You guys at Duke can take a joke right?”
– Duke came out in the second half and almost immediately converted back-to-back 3-pointers to push their lead to 6 points. Kentucky failed to take advantage of the fact that Mason Plumlee picked up his 4th foul early in the second half (though it felt about 5 fouls too late) and spent the next stretch of the game on the bench. A Plumlee-less (say that 5 times fast) Duke went on their biggest run of the game. Over the course of the next 8 minutes, Duke got hot from behind the arc. Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon caught fire and pushed the Duke lead to 14 points by the 9:25 mark, prompting a much needed timeout by Calipari.
– Kentucky didn’t have trouble responding on the offensive end coming out of the timeout. Poythress (I’ll go into more detail on his performance later) had a great finish out of the timeout, followed by a Kentucky steal and a rare Kyle Wiltjer dunk. The series cut the Duke lead to 10, but Kentucky was unable to capitalize on their offensive conversions. Kentucky traded baskets with Duke, unable to create a defensive stop. For a string of 5-6 possessions, it felt like if Kentucky could just come up with back-to-back stops, they could make a significant cut into the Duke lead. Instead, the lead hovered around 8-10 points for just a little too long.
– Finally, before the under-4 minute timeout, Kentucky started to come up with the crucial defensive stops that they needed. Nerlens Noel came up with a huge steal, that ended with a momentum stealing 3-point bomb from Julius Mays. The Duke lead was cut to 5 on the play. Archie Goodwin missed a dunk on the next possession after yet another Kentucky stop that would have absolutely brought the house down in Atlanta. Luckily, just a few moments later, Goodwin finished on a drive to bring Kentucky within 3.
– As John Calipari said, when the lead shrunk to 3, capping a 9-0 Kentucky run that resembled the type of runs that Calipari-coached Kentucky teams tend to string together before finishing teams…it felt like Kentucky was going to pull off the comeback. Duke burned a timeout and on the ensuing play Nerlens Noel came up with an athletic rebound to give Kentucky a chance to tie the game on the next possession. Julius Mays came down and had a good look at a 3-pointer that just missed. That play might have been the difference in the game. If that 3 goes down for Mays, Kentucky ties the game and you have to think that Duke might find themselves in a state of panic–even with a veteran team. Instead, Goodwin fouled Seth Curry, who finished 2 free throws to once again extend the lead to 5.
– With yet one more chance to bring the game within a single possession down only 5, Archie Goodwin forced play and was called for a travel. From that point on, Duke was nearly perfect from the free throw line and put the game out of reach for the comeback driven Cats.
– Although the comeback efforts came up short, the game was filled with a number of positives. The biggest positive for Kentucky fans HAD to be the emergence of Alex Poythress. For weeks now, Calipari and the Kentucky fan base have been clamoring to see Alex Poythress break out and make an impact on the game for this Kentucky team. Poythress did just that tonight. Poythress not only led the team with 20 points, but he looked much more comfortable on the offensive end all night long. His confidence started with a few plays where he got the ball a little closer to the basket, showcasing some post moves in order to finish. As the night continued, Poythress had a number of “wow” moments, including put-back dunks and hard drives to the basket for dunks in traffic. Poythress came up with a number of tough rebounds when Kentucky needed them the most, even on the offensive end. Calipari was very pleased with Poythress’ play, gushing over him in the post-game commentary. Calipari said Kentucky spent two days this week trying to get Poythress to dunk on people. I’d say the hard work paid off. “He’s a beast. That’s what he needed to look like. That’s what he is. He’s not a two-guard. He’s a beast.” Calipari continued his praise, “I don’t want to see any of the cute stuff. Get the ball by the guy and dunk on somebody. And he did that.”
– Perhaps the biggest change in Poythress from last week to this week was the fact that in the heat of the comeback, when Calipari was putting out the line-up he felt most comfortable with to get Kentucky back into it– Alex Poythress was on the floor. Last week against Maryland, he was notably absent, sitting on the bench.
– Archie Goodwin, Julius Mays and Jarrod Polson all spent time running the point tonight for a Kentucky team that was without an ailing Ryan Harrow. Calipari says he still doesn’t know what’s wrong with Ryan Harrow. He tried to work with the strength staff at home today, but the illness is still unknown at the moment. The three guys all had moments of good and bad in running the point, but it’s clear that Goodwin and Mays are not true point guards at this point in time. The offense never felt completely in sync and you have to start by looking at the players who have the ball in their hands the most often. Polson seemed to struggle a bit with the speed of the game tonight. He picked up quick fouls, seemingly unable to stay in front of his man. Goodwin only had 1 assist and coughed up 4 turnovers on the night. A number of Goodwin’s turnovers came on attempted drives to the basket where he looked a bit out of control. For now it seems that for every “wow” play Goodwin makes where he aggressively takes the ball to the basket (sometimes drawing fouls), there will likely be a “huh” play in which he loses control and winds up turning the ball over for his team.
– Following an SEC Player of the Week performance last week, Kyle Wiltjer struggled to find rhythm offensively tonight. To Duke’s credit, they seemed completely committed to taking away the 3-point shooting of Wiltjer. He really only found himself open maybe once or twice on the perimeter. He was limited to 2 long range attempts, finishing on one. “This team (Duke) said he’s not shooting,” Calipari stated after the game. Wiltjer drew the defensive assignment of Ryan Kelly. In a battle of “who is just a little bit slower,” Kelly got the better of Wiltjer– exploiting him on a number of plays throughout the game. Kelly finished with 10 points to Wiltjer’s 5.
– One player who didn’t see much action tonight was Willie Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein picked up 2 fouls early and never really got into the rhythm of the game. He only played a total of 6 minutes, to which Calipari apologized after the game. “The only guy I needed to get in there more was Willie. I don’t know him well enough yet. Is he rattled?”
– Regarding Cauley-Stein, a question that still remains for Calipari and his staff is how they can use both he and Nerlens Noel on the court at the same time. When Plumlee picked up his 4th foul, Calipari quickly went with the “ketchup/mustard” duo. At this point though, the combination and how it can be most effective hasn’t quite been worked out. And when Noel is playing as well as he is, and staying out of foul trouble, you have to think that Calipari is going to want to keep him in the game. The sooner a groove can be found with both players on the court, the better.
– The most devastating player for Kentucky’s defense tonight was without question Seth Curry. Archie Goodwin often drew the defensive assignment of handling Curry. Unfortunately, Curry was able to beat him and the rest of the Kentucky team in a number of ways. Curry was hot from distance early, draining a number of 3-pointers to help Duke’s lead balloon in the 2nd half. When the shots stopped falling from behind the arc, Curry was able to beat Kentucky off the dribble and either finish around the basket or draw a foul. Curry was light’s out from the free throw line. Curry finished the game with 23 points and his coach felt like he was the key to the game. “Down the stretch we were real good, didn’t commit turnovers, made free throws and closed the game well,” Coach K said after the game.
– Coach K threw out some nice praise to Kentucky, “Kentucky is so athletic and they’re good. And I think we’re good. We beat an outstanding team, and obviously, one of the great programs.” He also handed out some nice compliments to Archie Goodwin. “He is going to be a star. Goodwin is going to be a star. He’s an athlete. They’re just going to keep getting better.”
– I couldn’t conclude without mentioning Coach K’s response to Calipari’s halftime jab. “He can say whatever he wants. There’s a difference between a flop and a charge. I thought we took some amazing charges and probably could have taken a couple more.” Yeah, okay.
– Interesting stat: Kentucky had only 4 blocked shots, which matches the lowest for any game last season.
As Calipari said, the game was won and lost during a few crucial one-minute stretches. Kentucky probably took a few minutes too long to start coming up with the defensive stops when they first started to gain an offensive rhythm in the second half and chip away at Duke’s 14 point lead. And then again, when the lead was cut to 3, Kentucky made a few key mistakes within the span of about a minute that kept them from tying or taking the lead. The good news is that John Calipari sees improvement in his young team despite the loss. “We didn’t play bad. We’re better than we were against Maryland. We’re still trying to figure out our team”