Five minutes into the second half of the showcase game of this year's Champions Classic, Kentucky ran a play seldom seen at any level of basketball.
The 5-on-1 fast break.
The possession, which ended with an uncontested Marcus Lee put-back, exemplified why second-ranked Kentucky was able to keep fifth-ranked Duke at arm's length for much of their battle between two of college basketball's most tradition-rich programs. The quicker, faster Wildcats won 74-63 because they generated many more easy baskets off the dribble and in transition than the Blue Devils did.
Kentucky was at its most dangerous in the open floor when the ball was in the hands of its trio of talented guards. Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe attacked relentlessly, creating scoring chances off the dribble in half-court sets and seemingly turning every Duke turnover or long rebound into a fast-break layup or dunk.
Of the 30 baskets Kentucky scored, Ulis, Murray or Briscoe either scored or assisted on all but six of them. Ulis finished with 18 points and six assists, Briscoe had 12 points and one assist while battling cramps and Murray tallied 16 and five, most notably a spinning reverse layup from a virtually impossible angle.
The dominance of Kentucky's guards drained the drama out of one of the most hotly anticipated nonleague games of this year's college basketball season.
The Champions Classic delivered the heavyweight matchup many expected in last April's national title game, but neither team bore much resemblance to the ones that competed in last year's Final Four. The seven leading scorers from a Kentucky team that started 38-0 all entered the NBA draft, as did Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Quinn Cook, the four pillars of Duke's national championship team.
The Wildcats and Blue Devils remain factors in this year's title chase because these programs are recruiting at a level no other schools can match. Both teams reloaded with top recruiting classes, but whereas many of Kentucky's newcomers were effective in their first big college game, the stage looked too big for some of Duke's freshmen.
Skilled forward Brandon Ingram sank only one basket and was too slow to defend the perimeter. Sharpshooter Luke Kennard missed all five of his field goal attempts. And the only true point guard on Duke's roster, Derryck Thornton did not appear ready to assume that position in the Blue Devils' starting five.
The effort and offensive rebounding of 7 footer Marshall Plumlee and 6-9 Amile Jefferson kept Duke within striking distance in the first half, but Kentucky's lead ballooned to double digits as soon as the Blue Devils' second-chance points dried up. None of Duke's perimeter standouts besides veteran Matt Jones had any success at all either getting by their man off the dribble or knocking down contested jump shots.
Grayson Allen scored 54 points in Duke's season-opening victories against Siena and Bryant, but the sophomore could not come close to replicating that production against a Kentucky defense geared to stop him. The Wildcats overplayed Allen's right hand and funneled him toward their shot blockers, limiting him to six points on 2-for-11 shooting.
What Duke's biggest challenge going forward will be is finding a playmaker capable of generating open looks for someone besides himself. Maybe Allen can evolve into that type of combo guard. Perhaps Thornton will grow into the starting point guard position. But otherwise the Blue Devils will have other games like this one where they shoot 40 percent from the field and finish with nearly twice as many turnovers as assists.
As for Kentucky, the primary goal will be getting tougher inside, where freshman Skal Labissiere got pushed around by the older Plumlee and Jefferson. Nonetheless, with a perimeter trio as good as Kentucky's, the Wildcats can afford a few frontcourt growing pains.
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