This may sound a little funny, but beating Kentucky, in a way, is better than beating Carolina. Why? Because even if you lose to UNC - a 50-50 proposition recently - you know you'll play them again in a few weeks, if not in the final regular season game, then possibly in the ACC Tournament. With Kentucky, you might not play them again for several years, and when you do, Kentucky fans will still be complaining about the last time. As the Vegas guys said back in '90, it's not about the winning, it's about the collecting. And Duke collected Tuesday night.
Let's face it, under John Calipari, Kentucky has developed a huge mystique. The idea is that Calipari can just bring in four or five great players a year, send them on to the NBA at the end of the season, and then go out and just get four or five more.
It's worked so far. But last year's team was exceptional and this year's is not nearly as remarkable.
Consider: for the second game in a row, Kentucky's big men were substantially outplayed by the opponents. Although Mason Plumlee got in serious foul trouble (and despite the fact that his third and fourth were just not smart plays), he more than held his own against Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein got three fouls in six minutes and wasn't a serious factor.
And don't overlook the defensive job Ryan Kelly did on Kyle Wiltjers, who was limited to five shots and five points.
Noel got 16 points to Plumlee's 18 and outrebounded him by 8-3, but there was no question as to who the more polished player was. Away from the basket, in a halfcourt game, Noel at this point is functionally useless. He's going to be very good when it's all said and done, but that's not now. His offense is limited and while he's a superb shotblocker, look how many times Duke scored over him. Arguably, the play of the game was Seth Curry's hesitation shot, where his head fake sent Noel into low earth orbit. You can be the greatest shotblocker in the world, but if you leave the ground and your guy doesn't, you're in trouble. No exceptions.
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That play crystallized Duke's experience advantage. As talented as Kentucky is, and they're quite talented, they made a number of mistakes, particularly late in the game.Â And they're not yet fully confident, which you could see in Archie Goodwin's face when he was at the foul line with :35 to go. There was no question that he was missing that free throw because you could see he didn't expect to make it.
Ultimately it was solid talent with more experience that beat better talent with lesser experience. Plumlee, Kelly and Curry know each other very well by now, and Hairston, Thornton, Cook and Murphy all have tons of reps in Duke's system, whether on the floor or in practice. They know the routine.
As impressive as the seniors were, Hairston deserves special praise: not only did he defend much taller players when Plumlee was in foul trouble, and did it reasonably well, he also had key baskets and rebounds. He was, as he said he was, a much better basketball player than he has ever been at Duke.
But really, it was a solid team effort. Sulaimon didn't shoot well early, but he finished with ten points and led the team with five assists, including one beauty in traffic to Plumlee.
Cook and Thornton were both very effective and had just three turnovers between them.Â
And consider this also: Duke beat a supremely talented Kentucky team despite Curry's balky leg, despite Marshall Plumlee being out (and they could really have used him) and despite very limited minutes from Murpy and Amile Jefferson who only played two and four minutes respectively.
Still, you have to give the Wildcats credit for a rapid comeback. After being down 12 late they cut the lead down to 66-63. And they did it in a big damn hurry.
But then experience took over. Curry hit a pair of free throws and then a layup; Thornton hit his free throws as well.Â
On the other side, Goodwin was the guy who fouled Curry, then he missed a jumper, then he had a turnover, then he missed a free throw with UK down seven.Â
You can't blame a loss on one player, but that was a bad stretch for the freshman and critical for Kentucky's hopes.
For Duke, it's a really big deal. The program is used to big wins, of course, but this one really helps to put the Lehigh loss in the rearview and gives Duke a framework for the new season: the Devils took out the #3 team in the country on what amounts to their second home court, and there wasn't really much question about which team was superior, although Kentucky definitely made a game of it. But the game was Duke's.
We've never been big fans of John Calipari's, to be honest. We watched from a distance as John Cheney threatened to kill him and wondered why. We know Rick Pitino can't stand him. We know the questions about his ethics, his character; we know about the reports of his paranoia when he was with the Nets. And whether you think he's responsible or not, it's cold hard fact that his teams at UMass (probably not his fault) and Memphis (we're inclined to think he had to know that Derrick Roses's SAT scores would be ruled fraudulent) were stripped of their Final Four achievement.
He presents himself well, but if you can judge a man by the enemies he makes, Calipari has not made a very good impression. We got a brief glimpse of that at halftime when he complained that Duke was (we might not remember this exactly) "flopping all over the place" and that "in the NBA they'd be suspended."
It set off a firestorm on Twitter which saw Calipari get widely ridiculed. Generally speaking, it's enough work to just coach your own team.
After the game, Calipari, asked about it by a Chronicle reporter, said "it was a joke.Come on, you guys at Duke can take a joke, right? Geez."
And when Coach K was asked about it, he stuck the knife in a bit, saying this:
"I mean, he has a right to say whatever he wants. I thought we took some amazing charges, and I thought we probably could have taken a couple more. Thereâs a difference between a charge and a flop. A flop means you donât take any contact. I would hope that anyone who watches the game would say that our kids really played outstanding defense and were there to take charges.
"And we donât make any money, so we canât be fined."
Consider the rivalry fully re-engaged.