If Kentucky’s national championship last March showed how valuable freshmen can be, the third-ranked Wildcats’ first marquee game of 2012-13 showed how vulnerable they can be. Facing a No. 9 Duke team anchored by a trio of stalwart seniors, Kentucky’s inexperienced rotation couldn’t find enough answers in a 75-68 defeat.
The Blue Devils won the game by getting exactly what they expect from their seniors. Mason Plumlee carved out space inside, Ryan Kelly spread the floor and nailed jump shots, and Seth Curry sparked the offense with timely drives and clutch three-pointers.
If Mike Krzyzewski wanted to draw up a playbook for how to win with this year’s Duke team, this Kentucky game would be a great place to start.
The news wasn’t all bad for Kentucky, which rallied to cut a 12-point second-half deficit to three behind an aggressive defense. Now, the Wildcats just need to learn when playing for a steal is worth the risk and when it will just leave them out of position, as Nerlens Noel was too often on Tuesday night.
Learning is going to be the order of the day for John Calipari’s team, which often looked like it had no idea what to do when the offense began to stall. The lack of an elite point guard is going to be a problem all year (even when Ryan Harrow returns from his bout with the flu), but some of Kentucky’s offensive woes are purely a function of having five players who have barely played together and don’t know where everyone needs to be on the floor.
For a lesson in that, they can look to Coach K’s Blue Devils, who always knew where to find the open man, even if he didn’t always hit the shot. Plumlee is a fine passer from the post, but a huge part of his success (and Duke’s) this year is going to be that he’s had two seasons as a starter to learn every nuance of this offense and to identify every opportunity to find Kelly and Curry for the shots they want to take.
If Duke and Kentucky meet again in the NCAA tournament—always a possibility for two teams likely headed for top-four seeds—the intervening months of experience will make the Wildcats a very different team. Once Noel, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress get a few games under their belts, they’ll get a lot more impact out of their immense raw talent.
Duke, for its part, already has experience to burn, which is why the Blue Devils also have their first of many signature wins of 2012-13.