I’m ecstatic! Kentucky’s 69-48 rout against Michigan State last week in the Champions Classic in New York was a successful early season test against a nationally ranked opponent. Yet, an even greater reason to celebrate is that Duke lost that very same evening. OK, the elitist Ivy League wannabes may have had three of their injured freshman star players sitting on the bench in their JC Penneys, but all we heard the entire preseason was the national media fawning all over Duke, Duke, and more Duke. Frankly my dear, I’m sick of hearing about them.
I fail to see the consensus opinion that the previously #1 ranked Blue Devils are WAY better than everyone else—especially the Wildcats. For the past several seasons, these demons from Durham have crashed our party and loaded up on one-and-done players. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has flexed his Olympic coaching muscles, unashamedly barged into Calipari territory, and essentially stolen the success formula previously monopolized by the BBN. Now the coach, non-affectionately known as “rat face” by rival Tar Heel fans, is credited with revolutionizing college basketball while winning two additional titles (’10 and ’15) that rightfully should have been Wildcat coronations. Sorry about the rant, but you can see I’ve got some long-standing Duke issues.
Now that you know how I really feel, let’s get back to the subject at hand. Next up isn’t the Duke Blue Devils but rather the Duquesne Dukes—although anyone with a “Duke” nickname deserves to have the wrath of the Laettner shot thrown right back in their face. That’s essentially what happened as UK swatted away 9 shots, had 11 steals, and 18 points off turnovers against the overmatched Dukes. Three games in six days against Duquesne, Cleveland State and UT-Martin should provide the Cats with a trifecta of powder puffs to solidify their number one national ranking. Now’s the time to sharpen up our shooting eye, to get the inside game going, to fix the rebounding issues, and to ramp up the defensive intensity that Coach Cal has been harping on. After all, UCLA, North Carolina, and Louisville are lurking right around the corner.
It’s one thing to play well at Rupp Arena but I believe Kentucky’s performance on the Madison Square Garden big stage is a solid indicator of good things to come. Everyone came to the Big Apple ready to play and no one, as Coach Cal feared, “peed down their leg.” Although early season victories don’t necessarily guarantee post season success, previous wins in these preconference showcase events have been fairly accurate barometers of the team’s future identity. So far this year, UK’s guard play has been stellar. Malik Monk’s shooting, De’Aaron Fox’s speed, and Isaiah Briscoe’s steadying influence are the hallmark strengths that should keep the Cats at the forefront of the championship hunt in March.
Coach Cal also claims this can be one of his best defensive teams ever. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo agreed. I’m not quite ready to vault this team past the 2015 version, but who am I to disagree with two hall of fame coaches? This team may not have the shot blockers like Willie or Karl, but they are long and fast at every position on the court. Plus, they seem to complement each other well and enjoy playing the game together. Unlike his hair dye formula, team chemistry isn’t something that Coach Krzyzewski can just automatically concoct. My guess is that he’ll discover this season what Cal has known all along—coaching multiple one-and-done players is much more difficult than it looks. For the time being, Cal remains two steps ahead. He’s even written a book. I’m betting that copycat Coach K will have a lot more legitimate gray hairs before this season is over.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.