RTC National Columnist Bennet Hayes was in Chicago for the Champion’s Classic.
Three Key Takeaways:
- Kentucky Veterans Step Up. Nowadays, in a Kentucky-Duke matchup that takes place in November, you’re a veteran if you’ve played more than a handful of college games. Kentucky freshmen (most notably Skal Labissiere) have dominated early headlines in Lexington, but a trio of UK returnees delivered invaluable contributions tonight. Tyler Ulis’ floor game was solid as ever, and the sophomore captain pitched in 18 points and 6 assists, all without a turnover. Up front, it was Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress that keyed Wildcat surges in the late first half and early second with energy in transition and on the backboards; the duo finished with a combined 19 points and 17 rebounds. College basketball will be as dominated by freshmen as ever this season, but this trio of Wildcats displayed the value of having veterans capable of major contributions.
- Grayson Allen struggles. Allen has had the college hoops world buzzing for quite awhile. His 16 point effort in Duke’s title game victory started the noise, and a combined 54 points in Duke’s pair of opening weekend victories only raised the volume. Things might quiet down a little bit now, however, after Allen finished two for 11 from the field in scoring just six points against the Wildcats. He missed all nine of his first half field goal attempts, failed to score a point in the first 28 minutes of game action, and looked generally defeated for most of the second half. The fearless attacks of the rim that proved successful against Siena and Bryant over the weekend were easily neutralized by the Kentucky front line, and Allen took far too long to adjust to the elevation in competition. The sophomore may be best suited playing off the ball, which makes Derryck Thornton (who showed flashes of ability tonight) only that much more important.
- Tempo And Turnovers. Kentucky showed a willingness to play fast and frequently capitalized in transition on Duke’s 16 turnovers, scoring 17 points off them. Kentucky didn’t play at any sort of breakneck pace last season (251st nationally in possessions per game), but a trio of savvy ballhandlers – Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe – could make this year’s Wildcats more dangerous in transition. They showed glimpses of it tonight.
Star of the Game: Tyler Ulis, Kentucky. It was the smallest man on a court filled with with tall, long athletes who proved most important. Ulis orchestrated the Kentucky offense beautifully all evening, pushing tempo when Wildcat numbers were favorable and managing the halfcourt offense when circumstances demanded a dose of patience. Kentucky turned the ball over just nine times all night (none of which were attributed to Ulis himself), and the Cats were generally in control of this game from the start, in no small part due to Ulis. He finished with 18 points, six assists and four rebounds, but the pretty stat line is almost superfluous – Ulis dictated the outcome of this game in every little way a point guard should.
- “We’re gonna be trouble in a fast-paced game like that…we’re very unselfish with each other…we play well off each other.” -Ulis
- “He’s kind of like a baseball player that watches the ball and he can see the seams. The game happens slower for him.” –John Calipari on his point guard, Tyler Ulis
- “I don’t want him to be a bully. I want him to be an elite athlete. See a bully’s easier you can just stay on the floor and push around and be a lug…You know he hit his tooth, like, on the rim? You hit your tooth on the rim? So why don’t you do that all the time?” –Calipari on his expectations for Alex Poythress
- “God was good to him. The gene pool was good. They didn’t give him height, but they gave him a heart that is probably five times bigger than most people…he’s just a heck of a player.” –Mike Kryzewski, on why Ulis is so effective
- “I admired his face and his presence throughout the game. It was the face of a winner and a leader.” –Coach K, again talking about Ulis
- “We weren’t who we should be tonight. From the start.” –Coach K
Sights and Sounds: Blue. Lots of it. If not for Michigan State, the Champion’s Classic would be an annual blue-out, and both Kentucky and Duke brought their share of the event’s official color to the United Center Tuesday night. There was little doubt which team had more of it, however, as Big Blue Nation lived up to its reputation as the best traveling fans in the sport. The Wildcat faithful also had more to cheer about, of course, but it’s a testament to the power of these two programs that this opener significantly outdrew the second game of the night, despite Michigan State and Kansas’ relative proximity to the Windy City.
What’s Next: Things get easier for Kentucky, as three of their next four are at home against mid-major foes. The fourth is a neutral site matchup with South Florida and former Calipari assistant Orlando Antigua, but the Bulls already own home losses to Troy and NJIT. No such lull awaits the Blue Devils, as Duke heads to New York City to face VCU Friday and either Wisconsin (in a national title game rematch) or Georgetown on Sunday. Potentially pesky home dates against Yale, Utah State and Indiana await the Blue Devils upon their return from the Big Apple.