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What happens now for Kentucky?

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Tuesday really happened. What does it mean for Kentucky moving forward?

NCAA Basketball: Champions Classic-Duke at Kentucky
Duke embarrassed Kentucky in front of the world to open the college basketball season. What happens now for the ‘Cats?
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s just preface this ... with this: Kentucky got absolutely hammered by the now-presumed best team in college basketball, who currently possess three of the (at-worst) top-5 picks in the 2019 NBA Draft.

“They’re a very good team,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said in the early morning hours on Wednesday after his team was handed a 118-84 drubbing by No. 4 Duke in Indianapolis.

“If they play like that, they’re not losing very many.”

In fact, those three individuals — RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish — combined for 83 points on 30-of-53 shooting from the floor, including seven combined 3-pointers; a single point less than the Kentucky roster scored, but three 3-point makes more than Kentucky as a unit.

The question many surrounding the water cooler at work today isn’t what happened to the hot preseason shooting of Tyler Herro, which ... that’s probably a question a few folks asked the day after.

Personally, the question I asked myself was: “I know Cal’s teams always run, but against this team? I’m not sure electing to run a track meet with them was the best idea.”

The main question is probably, where in the world do the 2018-19 Kentucky Wildcats go from here after being humiliated and humbled by 34 points on a neutral floor to open the season?

As someone who watched Barrett, Williamson, Reddish and the semi-forgotten contributions of Tre Jones (7 assists, zero turnovers) and Jack White (9 points, 11 rebounds) torch the ‘Cats from buzzer-to-buzzer in person, let’s be clear on a few things:

That’s the best team Kentucky will see all season

Sure, Kentucky plays Little Brother Louisville, North Carolina (in Chicago), Auburn twice, Tennessee twice and the annual SEC-Big XII matchup with Kansas at Rupp, but as good as the Jayhawks looked at times on Tuesday night, they didn’t look near as great as Duke did.

When a team like Duke, who’s coached by arguably the greatest coach in the history of the sport, has such special talent like their new “big three” and Jones are, it brings memories of the 2014-15 ‘Cats pummeling everyone that got in their way.

We’ve truthfully never see a prospect like Williamson and I’m convinced Barrett could average 15+ points a night in the NBA right now. He’s that good. Plus, with his ability to handle the rock, shoot as a lefty and hardly any kind of contact fazes him around the rim, how did you not see some James Harden-esque flashes?

And then there’s this, which ... holy crap.

But enough about the Blue Devils.

The point is, Duke’s the best team in America until they’re not as far I’m concerned. I think they earned that right on Tuesday, which brings me to my next point:

For Kentucky to be the fearsome team many thought they would be, cleaning up matters defensively should be priority No. 1

Again, Kentucky won’t see talent like they saw on Tuesday again (unless they meet again in April, wink wink), but the ‘Cats aren’t beating any of the top teams on their schedule playing defense like they did on Tuesday. It doesn’t help your cause when a hot-shooting team makes 12 of 26 triples, with more than a few them coming on pretty open looks.

A nugget that stuck with me from Calipari’s post-game press conference with Reid Travis last night was the part where he hit on his team only forcing four turnovers with just a single steal recorded.

“Even in the exhibition games, we didn’t create turnovers, and I said to the staff, ‘There’s something that we’re missing here,’” Calipari said.

There’s a lot missing on the defensive end and for Kentucky to be the team most of us thought they would be coming into Tuesday night, the effort, the movement, the rotations and the fire need to pour out on that end. The offense will find a rhythm. There’s too many guys on this roster that can score the ball for Kentucky to struggle offensively.

But speaking of that ...

Shooting 4-of-17 from 3-point range isn’t going to beat anyone, but the shots as a whole that were taken were ... not ideal

Duke did a nice job staying in front of Kentucky’s drives all night, which forced the ‘Cats into taking some poor shots and getting them out of what they do best: attacking the paint.

Kentucky had just four shots in the paint during the first half on Tuesday. That’s usually a bad sign.
StatBroadcast

Kentucky was playing catch-up literally all night long, but when the ‘Cats aren’t getting in the paint on every possession, taking and making shots in there, they’re going to struggle even with a better shooting roster this season.

To their credit, they did shoot 21 freebies in the opening half, but Calipari’s offense is predicated on post-ups (especially with Reid Travis in the fold now) and his guards beating guys off the dribble and attacking the lane to usually score, kick out to a shooter (who is actually making open looks and not forcing contested jumpers), throw a lob or draw a foul and get to the line.

When not much of that stuff is happening, that’s usually not good for Kentucky.

(Note: Kentucky missed a registered seven layups/dunks in the first half, according to StatBroadcast.)

The ‘Cats shot 1-of-10 from long range and made just three in a second half of a game that was over 57 seconds into the half when they came out flat and Duke just hounded them so quickly.

Believe it or not, there were some positives to take away from the loss:

  • Reid Travis looked every bit as good as advertised with 22 points and seven rebounds. He was among the four guys that had three turnovers apiece for the ‘Cats, but he acted and played like an experienced leader against Duke.

”I wouldn’t say the moment was too big,” Travis said after the loss. “Collectively we didn’t get the job done. I don’t know if it was the moment, the hype, but it just wasn’t a game for us tonight. I think as we go back and watch the film, we’ll get better. I love our group of guys, and everyone does want to get better. You can tell that this hurt because we do care. I think we are going to really watch the film and get better from this.”

  • Keldon Johnson took that lead scoring role and looked quite comfortable in it with a team-high 23 points on 16 shot attempts. The jumper is well-documented as a work-in-progress, but Johnson didn’t look afraid of the spotlight. He’s on his way.
  • Just like I mentioned before Tuesday’s implosion ... it’s November, folks. Take a breath, grab a bite at Hugh Jass Burgers by the UK campus and look ahead to the rest of the season. One game doesn’t define a talented team like Kentucky will be this season.
  • But, yeah ... there’s plenty of work to do ... and like Calipari said on Tuesday, the BBN “probably will watch this tape more than I’ll watch this tape.”

He’s probably right, right?