ATLANTA – Heading into Tuesday’s marquee matchup with Duke, John Cailapri said, “It’s either we win or we learn.”
Although Coach Cal would have liked for his young Kentucky team to win and to learn, he can take solace in the fact that his super-green Wildcats showed a nationally televised audience that they’ve still got the talent.
They just learned that they didn’t have the experience. Not yet.
The older, more battle-tested Blue Devils edged UK 75-68 Tuesday night at the Champions Classic. Duke led by as many as 14 points midway in the second half, but the Cats flashed their grit and their potential with a 9-0 run to make a game of it late in Atlanta.
Kentucky got as close as three, but Duke iced the game at the free-throw line.
“They’re getting better,” Calipari said. “We’re better than we were against Maryland. It’s just that this was a (Duke) team with senior (players). I thought we had our chance. When it got to 3, I thought, ‘We’re going to win this.’ ”
The Cats didn’t, marking the first loss of the season and only the fourth for Coach Cal’s Kentucky program in the last 54 games. The defeat will knock UK from its third-ranked position when next week’s polls come out, but the NCAA Tournament-like atmosphere in the same dome that will host this season’s Final Four could serve as precious experience.
“Can’t stand losing but it was a good game,” Calipari said. “I think it helped our team. It’s all new to this team. We’re trying to figure out how we’re playing. We don’t play hard enough yet. We don’t compete on every possession yet. We don’t go after every rebound yet. We don’t know how to finish off games yet. We haven’t figured out totally how we’re going to play. It’s just going to take time.”
Poythress played like the ‘beast’ Coach Cal brought to Lexington as he went off for 20 points — with several ferocious dunks — on 9-of-12 shooting, eight rebounds and five big offensive boards in 37 minutes of action.
Give a player like freshman Alex Poythress time and this UK team could indeed make the return trip to Atlanta.
Poythress epitomized UK’s potential in the defeat, exploding for 20 points and eight rebounds after weeks of inconsistent scrimmages and exhibitions.
“He’s a beast,” Coach Cal said. “That’s what he needed to look like. It’s who he is. He’s not a two guard. He is a beast, so be a beast. I don’t want to see any of the cute stuff. Get the ball by the guy and dunk on somebody.”
Poythress dunked on someone four times Tuesday night, displaying his impressive power and athleticism. The showing came just a couple days after Coach Cal tweeted that Poythress was showing “signs” of “getting it.”
“(Coach) just pushed me hard in practice, not taking plays off … and playing hard every play,” Poythress said.
Poythress’ tip-back dunks ignited the Kentucky-dominated crowd of 22,847 and sparked a couple of UK runs.
“Everybody has their own job, and that’s what Alex’s job is,” Calipari said. “I had a kid at UMass that I just said, ‘You’re the big-play guy. You’re going to get a big dunk, a big block, a big rebound, a big steal. That’s who you are for this team. That’s your role.’ Well, that’s what his role is on this team. He can do all the other things, but that’s what he’ll make his mark at.”
Ultimately, though, Duke’s experience was just enough to beat Kentucky’s talent.
UK’s freshmen combined to score 56 points, but Duke seniors Seth Curry (23 points), Mason Plumlee (18) and Ryan Kelly (10) combined for 51 points, hitting key shots throughout the game every time UK delivered a blow. Plumlee did most of his damage in the first half before getting into foul trouble, and then Curry took over when Plumlee was forced to the bench with four fouls.
Curry scored 14 after halftime, including 10 of Duke’s final 15 points. Curry helped the Blue Devils go on an 11-5 run when Plumlee left the game, stretching their lead into double digits.
“Seth was terrific,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I think he was the difference-maker in the game. The fact that he’s a fifth-year senior has to help.”
The absence of Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow certainly helped too.
Harrow didn’t make the trip to Atlanta with flu-like symptoms. He missed all three practices after the Maryland game and had blood tests done to determine why he’s lacking energy. Calipari said he hasn’t heard the results yet, but he did say Harrow worked out in Lexington on Tuesday.
“We need him,” Coach Cal said. “It hurt us today. It’s obvious, but I want him to be healthy before he comes back. I don’t want to be putting him into the game (when) it’s just not fair.”
Freshman point guard Archie Goodwin and junior Jarrod Polson shared time at the point in Harrow’s absence, and both played well.
Polson couldn’t repeat his career-high 10-point performance that he posted against Maryland, but he gave the Cats 12 solid minutes. Goodwin scored 16 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out four assists.
“He did good,” Calipari said of Goodwin. “He reminds me a little bit of Tyreke (Evans) when I first started with him. He doesn’t always make the right decisions but he can break you down and score. He’s got to learn the position, and then he had to do it against Duke on national television.”
Freshman Nerlens Noel played well in the loss, posting 16 points, eight rebounds, four steals and three blocks. Oftentimes he looked like UK’s best offensive threat.
“I thought we learned a lot about ourselves tonight,” Noel said. “Just going up against a team like Duke you’ve got to bring it every possession. Tonight was a learning process. I think we’re just going to get back to work and figure everything out.”
Calipari said after the game that he still has a “November team” and that his players “have to get better,” but Tuesday wasn’t without a lot of positives. The hype of two of the game’s greatest teams battling it at this year’s Final Four site added to the hype of Tuesday’s game, but ultimately it will serve as nothing else than an important learning experience for Calipari’s team.
“I had friends of mine calling me that were watching the TV all day saying they’re making this game to be the NCAA Final Four game, the championship,” Coach Cal said. “I said, ‘I don’t even know.’ But it was a big game for these guys. They were in Vegas playing AAU ball four months ago.”
Four months from now they could be right back in Atlanta. Even a loss can’t overshadow that potential.