Well, that was sure something.
The Champions Classic looks and feels like a Final Four as a quartet of the sport’s elite gather each November to play a one-night doubleheader.
The games figure to be thrillers because of the top talent. This year’s event featured three of the nation’s top four teams and four of the top 10.
Duke came in ranked No. 4 but certainly looked like the best team in the country in a 118-84 shellacking of No.2 Wildcats.
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“When you start four freshmen, no matter how talented they are, you don’t know what they are going to do in this environment against an outstanding team and a great program,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And they responded. They were magnificent tonight.”
The Blue Devils never trailed. The game was tied for a mere 35 seconds before Duke freshman Tre Jones sank a 3-pointer to put his team in front for good.
He, along with fellow freshmen Cameron Reddish, Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, each made a shot as Duke started 4-4 from the field.
Kentucky didn’t know what had hit it.
“I told (the Kentucky players),” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “I got outcoached. You got outplayed.”
Duke took a 59-42 halftime lead. For symmetry, perhaps just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, the Blue Devils outscored the Wildcats by the identical score in the second half to post the 34-point victory.
“We were great,” Krzyzewski said early in his press conference before repeating it. “We were great.”
Here’s are some observations showing just how great the Blue Devils were:
Duke can score on anyone
When they got out in transition, the Blue Devils looked like they’d played together for an entire season rather than only two exhibition games.
The Blue Devils made 19 layups and eight dunks. They scored two out of every three times they possessed the ball. They collected 22 assists on 54 made field goals while turning the ball over just four times.
“Either they are the greatest ball-handling team in the history of basketball, or we aren’t creating enough havoc,” Calipari said.
Jones led the way with seven assists while not turning ball even once. Barrett added assists.
“My teammates did a great job of getting open and knocking down shots when they were open,” Jones said. “They make my job really easy. I’ve got a lot of really good players around me.”
Cameron Reddish, after making only 5 of 16 3-pointers in two October exhibitions, sank his first two shots from behind the 3-point line on the way to 22 points. Duke found plenty of open shots and open driving lanes to the run.
“We watched a lot of film,” Reddish said. “Coach emphasized we could get to the basket. We tried to listen to him. We trusted him.”
Duke played enough defense
OK, so the Blue Devils allowed 84 points. They way Duke scores, that shouldn’t be a problem as the Blue Devils are capable of topping that total on a regular basis and winning games.
But Duke also showed some defensive strength against Kentucky.
Duke recorded 10 steals as Kentucky turned the ball over 15 times. The Wildcats turned it over on 19.2 percent of their possessions, compared to Duke doing so on just 5.4 percent of its possessions.
Those numbers help explain how a blowout happened.
More importantly, Duke showed up strong defensively when it was really needed to maintain its lead.
Take the first half when Duke quickly built a 21-point lead only to see Kentucky slice it to 38-26 with 6:50 left in the first half.
Reddish made two free throws to push Duke’s lead up to 40-26. The Blue Devils hounded Immanuel Quickley into a missed jumper. Jack White grabbed the defensive rebound and started a fast break that ended with a Barrett layup.
Kentucky’s Nick Richard was called for an offensive foul while setting a screen in the backcourt. Barrett sank a 3-pointer when Duke took over the ball and, just like that, its lead was back to 19 points at 45-26.
Kentucky shot 44.1 percent, which isn’t awful. But the Wildcats were just 4 of 17 from behind the 3-point line. So that made it impossible for Kentucky to ever mount a comeback that made Duke nervous.
How about Jack White?
The 6-7 junior from Australia led Duke in rebounding with 11 while scoring nine points. He was one of the first two reserves, along with fellow captain Javin DeLaurier, into the game for Duke.
He played important minutes and turned in quality play.
“Really, the untold hero, I think, of our team was Jack White,” Krzyzewski said. “Jack had 11 rebounds and guarded Tyler Herro and just played tough, just played really tough.”
Herro, one of Kentucky’s talented freshmen, scored 14 points but did so on 4 of 11 shooting, including 1 of 6 on 3-pointers.