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Perspective on the Kentucky Wildcats' Victory Over Duke

Kentucky out-athleted the Duke Blue Devils last night in Chicago.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the pageantry and hype of the 2015 renewal of the rivalry between the Duke Blue Devils and the Kentucky Wildcats is in the books, let’s take a minute to look back at what we saw, what we thought we saw, and what we should take away from this contest. I’m sure there will be many pixels darkened by various and sundry pundits explaining all this, but before we get too carried away by a long-overdue victory over the Blue Devils, let’s keep in mind that what we think we know about this game may turn out not to be right in the end. I don’t want to be the cloud in the silver lining, but rather turn a jaundiced eye at some of the hype and try to sort out reality from hope.

By the numbers

Let’s have a quick gander at the Four Factors to see what they tell us, if anything:

UK-Duke post game ff

The first thing I notice is the discrepancy in turnovers. It is almost exactly the reverse of what we had pre-game, with UK turning it over 20%+ of the time and Duke much less. This turned out to be the key to this game, along with offensive rebounding.

Speaking of offensive rebounding, what kept Duke in the game early was dominating the offensive glass. Later in the game, UK took over that statistic and eventually surpassed the Blue Devils. That’s what allowed the turnovers to bite so hard, and the fact that UK scored over 1 point per Duke turnover (17/16) was painful, especially considering Duke only managed 5 points of UK’s 9 turnovers.

Finally, there is free throw rate, a stat that I would’ve expected Kentucky to win. What helped us out was Duke’s poor free throw shooting. They shot less than 61% from the line, and if you’ll recall from previous commentary, below 65% is the point at which free throw rate starts to matter less. UK also shot poorly at 61%, but it was a much smaller component of their offense than it was for Duke.

In the end, the shooting stats wound up a lot closer than I expected percentage wise, but here’s the key: UK got up 67 shots to Duke’s 54. That’s why the margin was so large, and turnovers were the reason why. It’s also what makes Duke’s FTR look so good despite the fact they only shot five more than UK.

A couple of other notes:

  • 30% from three for UK was not great. Duke was almost 39%.
  • Half of Kentucky’s field goals were assisted. That’s about average for UK since Tyler Ulis has been here.
  • Duke blocked more shots than UK did, which is another surprise.


This was not a fast-paced game despite the large number of UK run-outs. Pace was only 67 possessions, which is slower than either one of UK’s previous games and well below the Division I average. But for two heavyweights like this, the pace was about where it should be for both coaches. Neither Coach Cal nor Coach K are going to go all North Carolina on better teams this year. Both coaches prefer to run offense, and play real defense, and that means that possessions are going to be longer.

Contra my friend and colleague Jason’s take, I really don’t think that UK’s players are more skilled than Duke’s from front to back. However, Kentucky is more athletic than Duke all around, and Duke got bedeviled (pun intended) by the same problem that has nagged at Kentucky for the last several years — oversized guards running up against smaller, quicker guys. Grayson Allen had a lot of trouble guarding any of UK’s players, but it was for lack of athleticism rather than skill. The same was true for Brandon Ingram, who just wasn’t comfortable guarding any of UK’s smaller guys. The result for both of them was to be taken out of their games, and UK’s smaller guards did a good job of forcing them to shoot the ball where the Duke players didn’t want to.

Having three point guards (well, actually two and a combo guard) is going to be a nightmare for teams this season. Assists came from everywhere, and despite his relative lack of assists, Isaiah Briscoe was able to abuse his defender almost at will, forcing rotation that led to several "hockey" assists. Overall, it was athleticism that wound up putting Duke on their heels rather than skill.

Also, I think this game points to the idea, and this is far from a fact, that Calipari might be a bit better at getting his young players to a higher level early in the season than Coach K — God knows he has a lot more experience doing it. Ingram is a marvelously skilled and talented player who will give opponents nightmares this season, but he looked totally uncomfortable and unprepared last night. Chase Jeter and Luke Kennard also were ineffective and out of sorts, notably smaller than the moment. The only freshman that played well was Derryck Thornton, who had a solid night but for a freshman-like number of turnovers.

But don’t expect that to last. Mike Krzyzewski will get his young guys playing well, but he’s just not as used to having this many major contributors as freshmen year in and year out. Last season, Duke had a better mix of young players than this season, where he is very guard-dominant and lacks any freshmen contributors with the kind of size to take pressure off his young back court, a la Jahlil Okafor.

Kentucky also showed some chinks in its armor. Despite excellent play from the guards, Skal Labissiere was a non-factor, and looked as completely out of his depth as any player for Duke. Derek Willis also looked tentative, as did Charles Matthews, whom I expected to see more than 7 minutes given the foul trouble. Isaac Humpries actually impressed me — while he seemed a little intimidated out there, he was able to play through it and contribute meaningfully.

There are lots of guys to praise on Kentucky’s side, but Tyler Ulis was manifestly the best player on the floor. Marcus Lee had a spectacular game. Everyone else played well also, but those two stood out to me. I have to also shout out a little to Alex Poythress because I was rooting for him so much, and he didn’t let me down one bit.


It’s easy to get carried away with this big win, and I don’t blame you if you do. Until last night, Duke had defeated Kentucky seven times in the last eight meetings with the last victory being back in 1998. The Blue Devils had won three in a row coming into the United Center this season. That’s just a little bit hard for a Kentucky fan to swallow, and I’m glad that’s been set to rights for the nonce.

Kentucky still has a lot of holes to plug, particularly on the front line, and while UK’s guards were able to discombobulate Duke’s young back court, they yielded an alarming number of open looks from the perimeter that Duke will make later in the season. Not only that, but there are significantly better back courts in the country than Duke’s, and Kentucky has a long way to go defensively.

There is also the problem of free throw shooting. I’m not really concerned about this, as a general matter. Kentucky always seems to struggle early in this area. I’m more concerned about Isaiah Briscoe, as his form is below par and he lacks any confidence shooting them whatsoever. He has to fix the latter even if the former remains broken, a la Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Marcus Lee is also a poor free throw shooter, but he is putting them up with more confidence. But free throw shooting is likely to be a contributor to a loss or two this season, particularly before February, if the wrong people get to the line.

Finally, Skal Labissier has to become comfortable with contact. Right now, against similar talent that is either stronger or more experienced, he’s going to struggle. Calipari is very well aware of this deficiency, I’m sure, and I don’t doubt fixing it is one of his top priorities. For Skal to reach anything like his potential, he has to be able to take contact, block out, and compete with bigger, stronger guys.