Mike Krzyzewski’s praise of Kentucky also shows what Duke is missing

Laura Keeley breaks down Duke's loss to Kentucky

Blue Devils get first loss of season from a talented Kentucky team in Chicago.
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Blue Devils get first loss of season from a talented Kentucky team in Chicago.

After Kentucky beat Duke 74-63 Tuesday night, Mike Krzyzewski graciously praised the Wildcats’ two most effective players, sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis and freshman Jamal Murray. How he chose to praise them, though, was noteworthy. Krzyzewski chose to highlight the qualities they have that his Blue Devils currently lack.

Ulis, Kentucky’s 5-foot-9 floor general, registered 18 points (shooting 46.2 percent from the floor), six assists and no turnovers in 40 minutes.

“God was good to him. The gene pool was good,” Krzyzewski said. “They didn’t give him height, but they gave him a heart that’s five times bigger than most people. He has great balance. Even though he is short, he has long arms. And he has poise. He’s just a heck of a player.

“It doesn’t look like he gets tired. He is in complete control of his team. Competing against him, I admired his presence throughout the game and his face throughout the game. It was the face of a winner and a really good winner.”

Other than the part about the long arms, that description reads like the type of thing Krzyzewski used to say about Tyus Jones last season.

Current Duke, meanwhile, desperately needs a point guard, a fact that was painfully obvious in the first half as the offense was reduced to Marshall Plumlee putbacks off of errant drives. Grayson Allen, Matt Jones and Brandon Ingram, the Blue Devils’ starters on the perimeter, recorded four assists and eight turnovers. Ingram and Allen, the players expected to carry Duke’s offense, had tough shooting nights, too, combining to go 3-for-17 from the field.

“We’re not going to win if our perimeter plays like that against a really good team,” Krzyzewski said.

It should be noted that Derryck Thornton, whom Krzyzewski recruited to be the point guard for this team, played the majority of the second half and earned praise for his fight while posting seven points, three assists and four turnovers. But, in contrast to Ulis, there will be at least one face Krzyzewski won’t be happy with, as Thornton looked exasperated on a Kentucky transition break in the second half. Ulis stripped Amile Jefferson of an offensive rebound down low and quickly found Murray, who had streaked behind Thornton and finished with a slam.

“All basketball, if you have good guards, you have a chance to win. Kentucky has three points guards,” Krzyzewski said, referring to Ulis, Murray and freshman Isaiah Briscoe. “They’re not just strong, they’re strong with the ball. All three of those kids can initiate an offense. They can make plays, and you can play without turning it over.”

The idea that Kentucky was stronger than Duke was the thought that Krzyzewski used to begin his postgame news conference. And it was clearly a fact Krzyzewski hammered home inside the locker room, as all the the Blue Devils spoke of the need to play tougher.

“Forget the X’s and O’s, it’s a mentality that we have to have, a competitive nature that we need for games like this,” Jones said. “It starts with toughness.”

On that note, Krzyzewski’s praise for Murray, the freshman who scored 16 points, shooting 41.2 percent from the floor, and notched five rebounds and assists apiece: “Murray is a man.” That’s high praise from Krzyzewski, who has used the man designation for players such as Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow in the past.

Compare that to the stat lines posted by Duke’s freshmen.

Brandon Ingram: four fouls, four points (1-of-9 shooting from the floor), one rebound, one assist, four turnovers

Luke Kennard: two points (0-for-5 shooting), two rebounds, one assist

Derryck Thornton: seven points (3-of-7 shooting), three rebounds, three assists, four turnovers

Chase Jeter: zero points, zero rebounds, four minutes, three fouls

“In some respects, the game was a little bit bigger for our guys than they anticipated,” Krzyzewski said.

To jump to any long-term conclusions about the Blue Devils after three games would be foolish. But this is a snapshot of where they are now.

“We’re in a good spot. We just have to continue to grow,” Jones said. “I’ve been saying this time and time again, you have to learn from every game. Obviously we don’t want to learn with a loss, but at the same time it will help us in the long run.”

Laura Keeley: 919-829-4556, @laurakeeley

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