By LARRY VAUGHT
Remember there was a time that Kentucky fans, and I think even coach John Calipari, thought Zion Williamson was coming to Kentucky. I also don’t think UK fans, or Calipari, ever really thought he would go to Duke if he did not pick Kentucky.
But he not only went to Duke, he also became part of a mega recruiting class that simply overpowered and dominated Kentucky 118-84 Tuesday night in Indianapolis.
It had to irk Calipari to watch Williamson score 28 points on 11-for-13 shooting, grab seven rebounds and hand out two assists in just 23 minutes of play because Kentucky had no one — and I mean no one — that could guard him. Same was true for his freshman teammate R.J. Barrett, who had 33 points and six assists. He was another player Calipari did everything he could to recruit.
Yet while Barrett might be the better overall player, the 6-9, 285-pound Williamson is the more intriguing player because of what he can do for a player his size. Ever since he picked Duke, UK fans had been trying to convince themselves he was overweight and suddenly was not as athletic and gifted as they had believed when they thought he was coming to UK. Guess what? He might be even better than anyone ever though. “He was good today. He got some shots off on big guys that were trying to block it. I thought that would bother him and it absolutely did not bother him today,” Calipari said after the game. “We had a 7-footer in there and a 6-11 and he drove right at them and put his shoulder into them and made them… Holy cow.
“But, you know, (Cam) Reddish played well. Barrett played well. Those three were really good and (Tre) Jones had a steady game. He didn’t make a whole lot of mistakes. The other kids did what they do. They were hustling and scrambling. They’ve got a good team.”
Duke has a GREAT team. It might turn out to be similar to UK’s 2014-15 team that went 38-0 before it lost to Wisconsin the Final Four because it has what great teams must have — elite, elite players. Barrett and Williamson could be 1-2 in next year’s NBA draft. Reddish could be No. 3. As of today, Kentucky would not have a top 10 pick.
Williamson and Barrett have the star power that former UK players John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Karl-Anthony Towns did. That’s the kind of talent the really great teams have.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a one-time opponent of one-and-done players, knows his team is special and could get only better.
“I hope these guys stay more than one year, obviously. We have a special group of guys and the fact that they all came knowing that the other came kinda talks about their security as a player,” the Duke coach said. “We have a secure freshman class and we have secure upperclassmen. That’s a good mix.
“They’re a fantastic group to coach. They come every day. They really like each other. They laugh at my jokes, whether they’re funny or not. They make me feel good.”
What they did to Kentucky should make him feel better than good because they demoralized a top five team with the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, three returning sophomores who all started games last year and the nation’s top graduate transfer. Yet Kentucky was never in the game after Duke hit four straight 3-pointers to open the game.
“It’s hard to evaluate this game because Kentucky played so poorly. You know they are not that bad,” UK Radio Network analyst Mike Pratt said. “What you can’t do as a player is let one game get you down. You have to understand why it possibly happened. You have to let the coaches help you through it. These guys have to let Calipari coach them. This certainly isn’t working. Nobody wants to play in game like this if you are on the short end of the score.
“The rotation piece of that defense was really off. If you don’t keep the ball out of the paint you better be there waiting and have somebody to protect rim, stop the ball or take a charge. Too many clear paths (for Duke to the basket). I think there are a lot of intense weeks ahead for this team until they get it right but they can’t play this bad again.”
Intense weeks? Absolutely. Calipari had to give the team off Wednesday and then has only today to prepare for Friday’s home game with Southern Illinois where UK will try to regain its confidence and re-energize a bitterly disappointed fan base.
The Duke coach said his team was “magnificent” from start to finish. Calipari said his team got “bullied” from start to finish. That’s a combination that produces a 34-point win, the worst in the Calipari era at UK.
“The stuff at the Bahamas, even though they were good teams, we were better athletes (during a four-game exhibition trip in August),” Calipari said. “We have to figure out how we do this. I am not losing am faith in these kids. We play for March. But we have a little hill to climb.”
Little hill? Try a major mountain after what happened Tuesday.