The Wildcats throttle Kansas, Duke's freshmen shine
Here’s the terrifying part of Tuesday night: This is only the early season form for Kentucky and Duke.
November is supposed to be a time when teams are working through lineups and combinations, when freshmen are figuring out their place in the college game.
On Tuesday, Kentucky delivered a dominant team against another top five team, and Duke delivered three freshmen who look ready to roll through the ACC. If what we saw out of Kentucky two lineups and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor on Tuesday is a sign of things to come, we may see both of them again, this time in the same game on another neutral court.
These early games may end up as notches on NCAA Tournament profiles, but they do have a way of setting a tone for the season.
Here’s what we learned from the Champions Classic:
1. Kentucky is perhaps better than we expected
The Wildcats were Athlon’s No. 1 team in the preseason and a near-unanimous No. 1 pick just about everywhere else. On Tuesday, the same people who picked Kentucky No. 1 had their jaws on the ground. Kentucky defeated Kansas, a Big 12 favorite and a top-five team, 72-40. A 32-point win over a team with talent, experience and a shot at the Final Four. We can laugh at the platoon plans for a team that runs 11 and 12 deep, but when it works like it did Tuesday, Kentucky can’t be stopped. All 10 players on the Blue and White platoons scored in each of the first and second half. Think about how wild this is: Kentucky clobbered Kansas with only two players scoring in double figures and none more than 11 points.
2. Kentucky can be a ridiculous defensive team
The absurd stat of the night, of course, goes to Kentucky. The Wildcats had 11 blocks. Kansas had 11 field goals. Kentucky’s length was impenetrable Tuesday as Karl-Anthony Towns and Marcus Lee had four blocks apiece. Not that Kansas was much better on the perimeter. Starting point guard Frank Mason went 1-of-10 from the field, and the Jayhawks shot 3-of-15 from 3-point range. If Kentucky can do this to Kansas, what will it do to the SEC?
3. Jahlil Okafor is living up to his Player of the Year potential
Okafor’s first test against a quality opponent couldn’t have gone much better. Duke’s freshman center did the same to Michigan State has he did to Presbyterian and Fairfield. Okafor was 8-of-10 with 17 points against the Spartans. Michigan State had no answer for Okafor’s rare and elite talent as a low-post big man, not that there’s any shame there. Okafor is an 85-percent shooter this season.
4. Okafor is not alone
Besides Okafor’s 17 points, Duke freshmen Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones combined for 32 points against Michigan State. Winslow was all over the place on the way to 15 points, six rebounds, three assists and a three-pointer. Perhaps more important, Jones at point guard allowed veteran Quinn Cook to play at the two. The pair was expected to compete for time to a degree, so seeing them play together was a good sight for Mike Krzyzewski. Jones and Cook combined for no turnovers and 10 assists.
5. Michigan State has a long way to go
This isn’t a typical Michigan State team. With this roster, the Spartans appeared headed to short-lived NCAA Tournament appearance and a middling finish in the Big Ten. Tuesday only reinforced this. Michigan State got an outstanding effort from Branden Dawson (18 points, 8-of-10 shooting). The Spartans shot 50 percent from the field and got 13 offensive rebounds. And yet, Michigan State never really challenged Duke in a 10-point loss.