Kentucky is back: John Calipari is the king of the reboot. He assembled a program that probably would have won the national championship and gone 40-0 last season if he’d played Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis and benched the Harrison twins against Wisconsin in the Final Four. Still, 38-1 is a remarkable finish. And in most places, a step back would be expected and anticipated. Not in Lexington. Kentucky fans always expect championship teams. Since his arrival, Calipari has delivered, proven by the four teams he’s led to the Final Four in the past five seasons.
He’s hit the refresh button again in 2015-16. A team that loses seven guys to the NBA shouldn’t be as good as Kentucky was against the No. 5 team in America on Tuesday night. The score doesn’t tell the full story, though. Kentucky bullied Duke. The Wildcats shut down Grayson Allen. They scared Duke’s freshmen. They were more aggressive and just better. Jamal Murray (16 points) sent another letter to the Wooden Award voting committee. Marcus Lee showed the world how much talent Kentucky actually had on its bench these past few seasons. Ulis was a monster on both ends of the floor. And Kentucky made its case that it’s the best team in America.
Duke needed a hero, so Marshall Plumlee stepped up?: The game started sloppily for both teams. Neither shot well from the 3-point line. The star NBA prospect for the respective teams in the backcourt, Murray and Allen, both struggled in the first half. Only Plumlee’s rare burst helped Duke stay close to the Wildcats in the first half. His first-half stat line — 11 points, eight rebounds, five blocks — belied all expectations for his production. Plumlee was a beast, but his effort was a bad sign for Duke. He went 4-for-5 in the first half, but the rest of his squad finished 8-for-28 before halftime and the rest of the starters registered only a 6-for-22 clip. Both Allen and star freshman Brandon Ingram failed to hit one shot. But Plumlee looked great. It would have been helpful if his teammates had joined him. They also missed 11 of their first 19 free throws.
Allen and Duke’s point guard problems: Late in the first half, Derryck Thornton dribbled near the top of the key and called Amile Jefferson to set a screen for him. He yelled twice. Jefferson didn’t react. On the other end of the floor, Kentucky scored and Duke called a timeout. As Jefferson and Thornton walked to the sideline, the teammates argued and pointed at one another. Before that sequence, Jefferson told Thornton and the rest of the team to “calm down” as Kentucky made a run. There was so much confusion and so many bad shots. Allen started 0-for-9 as Kentucky altered and blocked his everything, and he never adjusted, continuing to miss at the rim. Duke’s experiment as a unit without a true point guard displayed its weaknesses when Allen couldn’t buy a bucket and the Blue Devils lacked flow. They became a group of downhill runners that ignored the ball movement that’s delivered so much success throughout its history. Thornton looked good in moments and extremely young (he’s a freshman) in others. His development is important for Duke going forward. But beyond that, shot selection and rhythm are key, too.