By DeSherion McBroom | @dvo_maximus
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — When John Calipari entered the post-game conference room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the coach of the second-ranked Kentucky Wildcats looked mesmerized and deflated. A highly anticipated game to begin the college basketball season had ended with a command of resignation, a shocking 34-point loss to the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils and a long bus ride home.
“I looked up and with eight minutes to go I said, ‘We’re not calling a timeout, and if you foul I’m taking you out of the game,’” Calipari said. “Let this thing run.”
Midway through the second half of Duke’s 118-84 victory at the State Farm Champions Classic, the once-boisterous Kentucky fans, now uncharacteristically quiet, were beginning to head for the exits. The Blue Devils were led by freshmen R.J. Barrett, who scored 33 points on 13-of-26 shooting with six assists; Cam Reddish, who had 22 points with four steals; and Zion Williamson, who scored 28 points with seven rebounds and a series of imposing moments.
“We weren’t surprised of how much we were winning,” Barrett said, “because we know what we come to do every day and how hard we work every day.”
At the start of Calipari’s tenth season at Kentucky, the 34-point loss was the largest margin of defeat for his Wildcats. The largest previous losing margin of the Calipari era at Kentucky was 30 in a 88-58 loss at Tennessee on February 16, 2013.
This was also the largest defeat the Wildcats suffered at the hands of the Blue Devils, surpassing Duke’s 80-55 victory on November 19, 1988. Kentucky leads the series, 12-10, but Duke has won eight of the last 10 games. The only other time Duke exceeded 100 points against the Wildcats was the 104-103 overtime victory in the 1992 East Regional final that was decided by Christian Laettner’s last-second shot.
Kentucky finished last season with a record of 26-11 and a loss to Kansas State in a regional semifinal. Duke finished with a 29-8 record and a loss to Kansas in the Elite Eight.
Seven freshmen were on the floor at the start of the game, four for Duke and three for Kentucky.
Duke’s four freshman outscored Kentucky’s entire team, 89-64. “You start four freshmen, no matter how talented they are, you never know what they’re going to do,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“It was one of those nights, too, where at the start of the game we hit everything, just everything,” Krzyzewski said. “I thought defensively we played really well. Made a few really good adjustments, they did, besides just coming hard and playing like they did all game.”
The fourth Duke freshman starter, 6-foot, 2-inch guard Tre Jones – the younger brother of 2015 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Tyus Jones – scored six points with seven assists. Jones helped direct an offense that committed just four turnovers.
Many freshmen aren’t ready for the bright lights so early in the season. Duke’s freshmen looked to upperclassmen for guidance.
“When you get to college you just learn from upperclassmen if you go in too excited, things will not go your way,” Williamson said. “So we had to go out calm and just play very hard and that’s what we did.”
Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson, a 6-6 guard, looked exhausted at times but did his best to keep the Wildcats in the game, leading the team with 23 points. Graduate transfer Reid Travis scored 22 points.
“They got confidence and got rhythm and then it kind of just turned into five, 10 and 15 points and at no point were we really able to stop that,” said Travis.
Coming into the game, Kentucky’s three sophomores were looked upon to help lead the team with Travis. But Quade Green, PJ Washington and Nick Richards combined for just nine points.
“I think all three of them will be fine,” Calipari said. “They didn’t play good today compared to who they were playing against, anyway.”
Duke junior forward Jack White scored nine points with 11 rebounds, three assists and two steals. Duke sophomore guard Alex O’Connell made all three of his 3-pointers in the second half as the Blue Devils stretched their lead to 37.
“I shouldn’t say I’m surprised at how well these guys played because I see them, but to play on this stage right away against Kentucky was a little bit surprising,” Krzyzewski said.
When Calipari was asked about the Kentucky fans who had filled the building with their noise, his response reflected the way they – and he – would respond to a long night.
“They’ll watch this tape more than I’ll watch this tape,” he said.