By LARRY VAUGHT
ATLANTA — If John Calipari wanted a learning lesson for his young Kentucky basketball team, he got it. Duke, a senior dominated team, made all the little plays it needed at opportune times to beat No. 3 Kentucky 75-68 here Tuesday night in the State Farm Champions Classic.
“Down the stretch, we had our chances,” said Calipari. “Missed a shot, had the ball in the post and did not catch it. We are still learning.”
And that’s the good news for Kentucky because it played without its starting point guard, Ryan Harrow (he did not make the trip because of illness), and trailed 54-42 midway of the second half when it looked like No. 8 Duke might run away.
However, Kentucky stormed back to cut the lead to 64-61 and had a chance to tie the game when Julius Mays missed a 3-pointer. That was all Duke needed to regroup and put the game away the final two minutes.
“We don’t play hard enough yet. We do not compete for every possession. Do not go after every rebound. We do not how to finish games yet,” Calipari said. “I have not totally figured out on how we should play yet.”
But what he is figuring out is that his three highly-touted freshmen — Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein — can all play and are only going to get better.
Poythress played like the “beast” at times that Calipari has been pushing him to be. He had 20 points on 9-for-12 shooting, but more importantly he got five offensive rebounds that he converted into points. Twice he soared above the rim to dunk follow shots, something Calipari and his staff had been working on in practice.
“He is a beast. That is what he needed to look like,” Calipari said. “He is not a two guard. He’s a beast. Be a beast. I don’t want to see cute stuff. Get by somebody and dunk. Shoot a couple of 3’s when you can.”
Goodwin had to play the point much of the game with Harrow not even in Atlanta because he was left in Lexington to try and regain strength he’s lost in the last week. Still, despite some questionable shots a few times, Goodwin had 16 points, six rebounds, four assists and one blocked shot to more than offset four turnovers. He showed everyone he could get by veteran guards and still score.”
Noel had 16 points, eight rebounds, four steals, three blocks and two assists. He was 5-for-11 from the field, but he also got on the floor numerous times after loose ball. He was pushed around at times, but he never quit competing.
All three impressed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“I think Goodwin is going to be a star. He is an elite athlete and can break you down. He and Noel with the ball screen is dangerous,” Krzyzewski said. “Poythress played a great game for them today. They are just going to keep getting better.”
Actually, Calipari thought Kentucky got better than it showed against Maryland last week in Brooklyn when it won. This time he credited Duke for much of what didn’t go right for UK even though the Cats had just 13 turnovers, were outrebounded only 31-30 and shot 49 percent from the field to Duke’s 45.6 percent.
“We were better than we were against Maryland. This was just a team that was senior … we had our chances. When it got to three, I thought we were going to win this,” Calipari said.
“What they don’t understand is how hard you have to play every possession and how you have to sustain it and how a bad minute and a half cost you a game. They don’t know yet. We have to get stronger and mentally tougher,” the Kentucky coach said. “We are a November team right now and have to get better. If we look like this in December and January, we wil not be the team everybody thinks we can be. We have got to figure out how to play and then get after it.”
It will help if Kyle Wiltjer (2-for-5) and Julius Mays (2-for-8), the team’s best outside shooters, can make more shots. It will help if the Cats can be a bit more physical and it will help immensely if the freshmen learn not to take every shot fake and get into the air way too much defensively. But more than anything, it will help to get Harrow back and just let this team develop the continuity of playing together.
However, this loss should not discourage Kentucky. Let Krzyzewski explain why.
“There won’t be another setting like this (Michigan State beat Kansas in the first game in the Georgia Dome in front of 22,847 fans) until March,” the Duke coach said. “What a setting. That is one of the great things about this concept and why we wanted to be part of it. You know they are going to make a run. They have won over 100 games in the last three years and they are national champions, so they are going to make a run. I just thought our guys handled it well.
“It says something about the kids on both teams that they can play this well. This was not a mistake-ridden game. It was good. People had to fight. It was very physical. You had to work for everything. It was not a game of mistakes. This was a very good basketball game tonight.”
It was and was one that will be a learning lesson that should help make UK better in the months ahead.