UK will shine — in time



By Les Johns | @KernelJohns

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Duke is a better team than UK right now, but they should be.

The Blue Devils have returned nine years of Duke-playing experience to its starting five.  Duke guard Seth Curry, who nearly single-handedly sealed the game with his drives to the bucket late in the game, is a fifth-year senior.  He is joined in the backcourt by junior guard Tyler Thornton.

The Blue Devil interior is patrolled by senior forwards Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee.  Although it seems Plumlee has been a part of the Dukies for nearly a decade, this is his final year, having started 66 career games for the Blue Devils.

How many career games have been started by this year’s Cats? That number is 59, if you include starts by transfer guards Ryan Harrow (who wasn’t even in Atlanta) and Julius Mays at North Carolina State and Wright State.

Duke has an experienced senior-laden team that threatens every pass, contests every shot and flops every time they are heavily breathed upon.

They are clearly the better team . . . for now.

UK head coach John Calipari has truly built this team from scratch. There are indications that progress is being made at a pace quicker than what could be reasonably expected.

Despite the loss, the Cats already looked sharper on both ends of the court that they did in Friday’s win over Maryland at the Barclays Center.

Here are some reasons for optimism:

These Cats are coachable.

After giving up a combined 49 3-point attempts in two exhibition games, Calipari drilled the importance of getting out on the perimeter and contesting shots, even if it allows drives to the basket.

The next game the Cats forced Maryland to go an ineffective 3-of-20 from behind the arc.

The Terrapins destroyed the Cats on the backboard in Brooklyn, capturing 28 rebounds in a losing effort, prompting Calipari to focus two days worth of practice on the fine art of rebounding.

The result was a relatively even battle on the boards (Duke 31 UK 30), and only 11 offensive rebounds for the Blue Devils.  It was physical down low, but the Cats didn’t back down and held senior forward Mason Plumlee to just three rebounds for the game (9.2 rebounds per game average last season).

“They outrebounded us by one. We’re just learning that,” Calipari said. “We focused two days on that.”

It wasn’t enough to win the game, but the Cats are listening to Calipari.

These Cats don’t quit.

After 30 minutes of physical, emotional basketball in front of a rabid crowd of split allegiances, the Cats found themselves down 58-44.

It would have been incredibly easy to cave, but they didn’t.

UK responded with a 17-6 run to make it a one-possession game, fueled by strong defense, limiting Duke to one shot and explosive plays on offense.

“Down the stretch we had our chances,” Calipari said. “We’re still learning. We’re still trying to figure out our team. They fought.”

Curry led the Blue Devils to the finish line, thwarting the Cats comeback with a handful of clutch plays, finishing the game with 23 points.

“We were composed,” Curry said. “We’ve been in that situation before.”

It wasn’t enough to win Tuesday, but the Cats didn’t fade when faced with adversity.

Freshman forward Alex Poythress is a beast.

The decisive, dominating Poythress that played Duke Tuesday does not look anything like the timid, mistake-ridden Poythress that played against Maryland Friday night.

“He rebounded the ball, which he didn’t against Maryland,” Calipari said. “He went after balls in traffic and grabbed them.”

He scored 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field and captured eight rebounds in 37 minutes of play Tuesday. Not once did he force the action. He let the game come to him. But when the game summoned, Poythress answered with intensity and aggression.

Eight of his 20 points were scored on rim-shattering dunks worthy of SportsCenter Top 10 Plays contention (one two-handed tip-slam did make the segment).

Poythress is learning his role, and it is surely a fun role to play. Make spectacular plays, deliver facials and be a beast.

“He’s a beast. That’s what he needed to look like. That’s who he is,” Calipari said. “He’s not a two guard. He is a beast, so be a beast. Get the ball by the guy and dunk on somebody.”

It wasn’t enough to defeat Duke Tuesday, but Poythress beast-mode sure is fun to witness.

Despite the loss Tuesday, there are many bright spots for the Cats and many reasons to be optimistic that the Cats are on the threshold of another outstanding season.

Give this team a healthy and productive Ryan Harrow and another couple months of Calipari’s coaching and the improvement will be striking.

The Blue Devils were better Tuesday, but rest assured they will not want to see the Cats on their side of the bracket in March.