CHICAGO — Kentucky vs. Duke was billed as a battle between the nation’s preeminent one-and-done factories, the program that began the trend of building a team around a single recruiting class squaring off with the program that may or may not be beating them at their own game.
It made sense.
Duke is the reigning national champion that lost three one-and-dones to the NBA reloaded with a freshman class headlined by Brandon Ingram, a projected top three pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. And Kentucky? They were arguably the best team in college basketball’s early entry era and replaced the seven players that left school early with, in large part, two projected lottery picks, one of whom — Skal Labissiere — could end up being the first pick in the draft.
The result, however, was entirely different. Ingram finished with four points and four turnovers, shooting 1-for-6 from the floor in a 74-63 loss that made painfully clear that fellow freshman Derryck Thornton is not ready to handle full-time point guard duties.
It was the same for Kentucky, at least early on. Labissiere was a complete non-factor, getting taken out of the game by, of all people, Duke center Marshall Plumlee. He fouled out with five minutes left in the game, finishing with just seven points and four boards. Murray was terrific in the second half, finishing with 16 points, five assists, four boards and three steals on the game, but it took him a while to get going; he was the third-best guard on the floor for the Wildcats during the first 20 minutes.
“Our back court took care of it and put [the team] on our back,” Ulis said.
“We’ve built a chemistry and play well off each other,” added Murray.
And that’s what makes this Kentucky team so dangerous.
Tyler Ulis isn’t the most talented player on Kentucky, but he is the best – and most valuable — player on Kentucky’s team. He may just be the best point guard in the country.
“I admired his presence throughout the game and his face throughout the game,” Coach K said of Ulis. “It was the look of a winner.”
He controlled this game for the Wildcats on both ends of the floor. He finished with 18 points, six assists, four boards and two steals, a steadying presence on the floor for a team that doesn’t have much experience in their back court. Defensively, however, he was even better, ball-hawking Matt Jones and Thornton into submission. If Labissiere had been able to keep Plumlee from looking like the second-coming of Bill Russell in the first half, Duke’s offense would have been non-existent.
Ulis made that happen.
Briscoe was terrific in the first 20 minutes as well, scoring nine points, adding an assist and embracing the role of defensive-stopper. He was primarily matched up with Grayson Allen, who went 0-for-9 in the first half. Even Marcus Lee played great. He eventually fouled out, but he finished with 10 points, 10 boards (five offensive) and two blocks, the majority of which came in the first half.
Labissiere and Murray are the most talented players on the roster. No one is questioning that fact. They also have their flaws, flaws that have, at one time or another over the course of the first two games, been painfully evident.
Labissiere still doesn’t really understand how to play basketball. He’s got the physical tools to have an impact and he’s got the touch in and around the lane to be a threat offensively, but his issues on the defensive end are going to be a constant theme this season. On Tuesday, they manifested as an aversion to contact and the inability to box out Plumlee. Murray’s a streaky jump-shooter whose decision-making will draw the ire of John Calipari throughout the season. The fact that he survived that behind the back pass should tell you just how good he can be.
“I knew it was a mistake,” Murray said, grinning impishly. “I couldn’t see coach behind me. I already knew coach was on me.”
But what makes Kentucky dangerous — what makes them a national title contender — is that they can beat a team like Duke on the nights where those two stars don’t play their best.
“We’re all unselfish with each other,” Ulis said. “We play well off each other.”
This is also a departure from what has become the norm for Kentucky teams. This group has bigs, but this is not a team built around their bigs. Labissiere is going to have some big games because he’s a talented scorer that operates well in pick-and-pop actions, can stick a turnaround jumper and will be catch lobs at the rim.
But this group is back to Coach Cal’s roots.
“We went to dribble-drive,” Cal said, providing insight while throwing shade in a way that only he can. “I’m back to teaching that like I did at that other school.”
As much as the dribble-drive motion offense is attributed to the UK coach, it’s not something that he’s been able to use with these massive Kentucky lineups. The offense is predicated on having three perimeter players that can put the ball on the floor and make plays off the bounce. That’s not exactly ideal for a team that plays Trey Lyles or Alex Poythress at the three.
And let’s call it like it is: Duke isn’t as good as where they are ranked — at least right now, anyway — and given what their current weaknesses are, Kentucky was the worst matchup that they could have had. A team that’s in the throes of trying to figure out who is going to handle the ball for them playing a Kentucky team that can defend on the perimeter like that?
We probably should have seen this coming.
But just because one team is supposed to execute a certain way or they’re supposed to beat a certain team doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen. Wisconsin is supposed to beat Western Illinois. Georgetown is supposed to beat Radford.
Kentucky did what they were supposed to do, and they probably did it better than we could have expected.