‘I loved our fight.’ Calipari positive following opening night defeat to Duke


Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari argues a call during the UK vs. Duke men’s basketball game as part of the State Farm Champions Classic on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. Duke won 79-71. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Hunter Shelton

“We got a lot of work to do.” 

Kentucky head coach John Calipari did not mince his words following No. 10 Kentucky’s 79-71 loss to No. 9 Duke in the State Farm Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden.  

The Blue Devils controlled the game from the tip, never trailing by more than a point to UK. Freshmen Trevor Keels and Paolo Banchero dominated the Kentucky defense on Tuesday night, scoring a combined 47 points. 

UK shot just 37 percent from the field. 

“This was a moment kind of game, and for us to be in that game when our better players did not play well and their two really good players played really well, and we had a chance to win. That’s crazy,” Calipari said.  

Two of Calipari’s four transfers led the pack in scoring against Duke. Oscar Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler’s 17 and 16-point performances paced a Wildcat offense that was never able to hit its second gear. 

“Give Duke credit. I mean, they kept us in pick and rolls, and again, I should have gone to forcing down the sideline earlier than I did,” Calipari said. 

Despite Kentucky’s shooting struggles, the Cats weren’t forcing it and only turned the ball over four more times (13) than Duke. 

“I walk away, I wanted us to compete against ourselves and do stuff — we only had 13 turnovers. Like you think we had like 40 turnovers, we had 13,” Calipari said.  

Wheeler, who led the team in assists, also had the most turnovers in the game with seven. Calipari knows that the bad is going to come with the good, especially early in the season: 

“Look, when you have a downhill runner, [Wheeler’s] just got to get comfortable with our guys,” Calipari said. 

Wheeler played the most minutes of anyone on Tuesday, logging 38 on the hardwood in MSG. Calipari contributes his point guard’s five—turnover second half to his sloppy minute-management. 

“Can’t play a guy 38 this early in the season,” Calipari said. “So, he should have played about 32 and he would have been fine, he wouldn’t have had those turnovers. Not his fault, that’s on me.” 

Outside of Tshiebwe, Kentucky failed to get acclimated in the post all night against the Blue Devils. As much as Calipari wants his team to run-and-gun in an up-tempo offense, he knows that his bread and butter is going to be down low. 

“You have to have a post presence if you’re going to win. That’s where you shoot a higher percentage… some guys got to step up,” Calipari said.  

There was a monumental presence in the post for Duke on Tuesday night, headlined by the star freshman Banchero. The six-foot-10, 250-pound forward was able to attack UK’s defense at all three levels.  

Whenever the ball was in the hands of Banchero, Calipari knew his players would be weary: 

“We had too much respect for [Banchero]. We backed away and now he shoots. No. Make him make basketball plays. I kept saying it, but we’re afraid, so they kept backing up,” Calipari said. 

Banchero was recruited hard by Calipari and the Cats. Even though the forward was playing at MSG in a different shade of blue on Tuesday, Calipari knows that it’s all business.  

“I don’t take this stuff personal,” Calipari said. “I hope he does well and I hope we play him again and he doesn’t play so well.” 

Despite the opening night loss, Calipari admired his team’s performance on the grandest stage of them all, knowing the best is yet to come with his 2021-22 squad. 

“I loved our fight. I loved our competitive spirit. And that’s what our program has always been about,” Calipari said.