The NCAA equivalent of opening day for the basketball season has come and gone and while most of the ranked teams spent their first game beating up on schools who’s Dean also doubles as the “swipes guy” in the cafeteria, the Champions Classic gave us some games we could actually enjoy watching. Kansas and Michigan State was a great game that wasn’t as close as the score would have you believe, and while Bill Self and the boys showcased a very solid and deep team that proved why they were the preseason number one ranked team, they were not the talk of the town. No, everyone is currently in awe of the snuff film that was aired on a Disney network disguised as Duke vs Kentucky. Beating the Wildcats by 30+ points and being in control of the game from start to finish has just about everyone wondering if this is the greatest college team ever assembled. To those people I say “easy there Pete Davidson” there’s such a thing as jumping the gun and a lot of people have up and done it without the season being underway for a full 24 hours. The game between Duke and Kentucky showed a lot about both the Wildcats and the Blue Devils but what most people missed is how last night’s blowout of the second best team in the state of Kentucky actually laid out the blueprint to bring down the proverbial Goliath of Durham North Carolina.
Let’s start with Kentucky, it’s finally happened, the formula that John Calipari has been using for the past decade has been used against him. Yesterday Calipari came to the realization that he no longer is the revolutionary who carries the burden of embracing the one and done alone. Everyone is doing it, and this year it is looking like Coach K might have done a better Calipari impersonation that John Calipari. This is definitely not going to be a year where Cal can just roll out the basketballs in practice and let them scrimmage and play 3 on 2, 2 on 1 all day. Cal is always hoping for a season where he can have this type of practice schedule and run through the SEC like Dash Parr; but in order to do that he has always needed one thing, and that is THE top recruiting class. Anything less and his formula collapses on itself. LeBron put it best with his “…not two, not three, not four…” the same goes for Coach Cal in recruiting. In order for him to have a team where the casual fan is calling him the greatest coach ever he needs to have the absolute top recruiting class bar none.
The second area that was concerning was defense, I am aware what they were up against from a defensive standpoint but there were still some major issues with how they were going about playing their matchups. Their defensive woes last night were eerily reminiscent to what we saw from Duke last year when they were at the nadir of their defensive competency. There was a lack luster attempt to switch to zone in the last 7 minutes of the game which had Calipari looking like vintage 2017 Dwane Casey in the adjustments department, but that was to no avail also. Overall Kentucky was a mess on the defensive end and it showed on the scoreboard.
The craziest thing that the Wildcats had us endure last night was without question the ridiculous shot selection by some of the Kentucky players. I don’t know if someone told Tyler Herro that he is the second coming of Jesus in the form of a shoot first point guard but whatever they did they need to take it back. There were other areas within the offense that weren’t taken advantage of because of some of the outrageously quick and deep shots that were taken by some of the guards last night. And as I have always preached to my players, a bad shot is the first pass in the other teams break. There was an egregious amount of “Herro Ball” being played that brought back Pangos PTSD and hopefully Cal has plans on addressing this issue. There are guys that the offense can be properly ran through and Herro ain’t it.
Now with all those issues coming to the front burner there still is no real need for concern if you are a Wildcat fan. This year will be very similar to last season in the sense that they aren’t going to reach their full potential until late January early February. Their record will also be better than it was last year as there is a good amount of talent on the team. Guys like EJ Montgomery and Quade Green are going to come into their own as the year progresses and be big time players when SEC play hits. And let’s not forget about the biggest addition to their team this year, Reid Travis. This Stanford player who grad transferred to Kentucky is a grown man on the low block. Frustratingly enough the team didn’t get him involved in the game as early as they should have and it played a part in the early deficit. He will without question be one of the top forwards in the SEC this year and be a key part to the success Kentucky sees during the season. So as much as it pains me to say it, even with what seems like an embarrassing loss, Kentucky faithful shouldn’t come away from this too worried.
On to the team that had everyone ready to crown a champion after literally only 80 minutes of nationally televised college basketball. Without question the four Freshman for Duke (Williamson, Barrett, Reddish, Jones) looked outstanding in their season opener last night. Zion and R.J. both broke the record for most points by a freshman in a season debut (25) with 28 and 33 points respectively. Tre Jones looked like a veteran point guard and probably had a few people thinking they were watching Tyus back on the court for his Alma mater. Zion, R.J. and Cam also showed just how K is looking to position the three of them on the court at the same time. All three are technically forwards and the question was how were they going to effectively place them on the floor. This year we can expect to see a good amount of 4 and 5 out from Duke to allow for the four freshmen to be set up for success on the offensive end. Getting to the basket was a strength of this group against Kentucky and it will more than likely be the focus of the team all year. They did a great job drawing fouls around the rim and hitting open shooters from outside the arc later in the game. Coach K spoke before the season started about the emphasis of hitting open spot up 3’s and it was definitely showcased against the Wildcats. Defensively the team looked extremely better compared to any point of last year’s team. It is clear Coach K saw the issues he ran into last year having so many freshmen on the defensive end and was not about to have the same problem two years in a row. All in all the Blue Devils played extremely well against an opponent that seemed to not be totally prepared or in a groove as a team.
All back patting aside, while this was a great showcase of what Duke can look like in a world run by Walgreen’s, they also tipped us off to what their weaknesses are. As a coach in any sport when you have a chance to scout a team your goal is going to be to take away the things a team does well and exploit the things they don’t. Last night Kentucky played into Duke’s hand by jumping on-board with turning the game into a track meet. With players like Barrett and Zion fast break points are their specialty and playing in transition is where they are most comfortable. To no fault of Calipari’s his thought process was obviously “I invented the one and done, run and gun game” and that is what he has and will continue to practice as long as this phenomenon is a part of college basketball. It just so happens that Duke is better at it and it cost Kentucky a chance at making the game respectable. When Kentucky was able to cut into the lead (slightly) about 5 minutes before halftime they were able to do so because they slowed the game down. One area that Coach K seemed to be trying to avoid lingering in too long was the half court offense. They showed off some quick hitters but what they showed offensively was not built for any extended period of time in the half court set. When teams don’t fall into the trap of playing the Duke pace of basketball and slow the game down the young Blue Devil team could run into some problems with the amount of variety in their offense.
The shot selection for Duke was also a point of interest. As we talked about this team is going to be all in on getting to the basket and looking for open spot up shots on the outside. Things were definitely going their way against the Wildcat defense and we got to see just how skilled this team is when they can get to the basket and when they are left open on the perimeter. The game that was neglected and often is by players and teams in today’s NCAA is the mid-range game. There weren’t too many mid-range shots taken and it was clear that there was an attempt to avoid having them taken at all. There seems to be an attempt to shift to the D’Antoni school of thought of layups and threes under Coach K this year and while that works in the NBA it can be a weakness at the college level.
Looking at the pace this team wants to play at and the shots they want to take there are a few teams in the ACC that can already be put down as problems for this Duke team. This is purely from the fact that the culture that has been built at these programs directly conflicts with what this Duke team wants to do and those teams are Virginia and Syracuse. Virginia without question is the best defensive team in the country and one thing they do better than anyone else is prevent easy buckets and slow offenses down. Virginia leads the NCAA in most games holding a team under 50 pts, has had numerous games where they have went into halftime and their opponent has only scored 20 or less, and bring the overall pace of the game to an almost monotonous crawl (and it’s beautiful). The shot selection and pace that Duke is going to be looking for will be off the table against Tony Bennett’s veteran squad and his team has the size and physicality to go along with what Duke is planning to dish out. Guys like Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and Jack Salt are not going to be easy matchups for this young team as they have a wealth of experience under their belt and have proven they can defend the best freshmen in the country time and time again. The same issue comes when looking at Syracuse as last time I checked Jim Boeheim still runs the nastiest 2-3 zone in the college game. The problem with Boeheim’s 2-3 is that it is different than the average 2-3 zone you might see team’s run and can be categorized like the option in football when it comes to planning for it. When you coach football and you know you have a game coming up against a team that runs the option the benefit your opponent has is the fact that you can’t properly prepare for it in a week’s time. You know it, your opponent knows it, and you end up just throwing some things together to try and deal with it as best you can. Coaching against Boeheim’s 2-3 is no different and for a young team it has proven to be a culture shock when seeing a 2-3 that shatters all the stereotypes of the lazy nonathletic tags that are associated with zone defenses. As everyone knows, especially Coach Boeheim, the best way to beat his style 2-3 is with mid-range shots in the gaps of the defense via ball movement. These shots are going to have to be quick because their ability to close out on shooters in unprecedented, and they aren’t going to come without a bit of work so there will need to be some offense ran to get those small windows of opportunity. Returning all 5 starters this defense is fresh off a very nice tournament run and is going to pick up right where they left off defensively. Duke will have to find a way to get shots on a defense that wants you to show off your basketball IQ and run some offense then take shots from the mid-range area.
Some will take this as Duke hate and to them I say go pull the legs off a spider. This team has clearly got some great talent in their starting group and it is going to be fun watching them play. Watching a team force a spectacle like that down an improperly ranked Kentucky’s throat is not the time to be swooning over how great and perfect the team is. That is the time to break down the film and see what areas can this dubbed NCAA super power be attacked. This team is without question going to do well this year but don’t have your lip stuck out when there are some growing pains come conference play. The ACC is arguably the best conference in basketball and these teams are not about to bow down without solid preparation and a good fight. Similar to when Batman fought Superman his first question was famously “Do you bleed? You Will.” Plenty of teams are going to come to their game feeling like Batman in his Kryptonite laced suit. It is going to be great to see how teams game plan for Duke this year but I can guarantee you that the teams that have the most success will be taking advantage of the things that they showed and didn’t show in their opener in Indianapolis.