ATLANTA (WDRB) -- It felt like March in the Georgia Dome. Kentucky. Duke. Dickie V. Bob Knight somewhere in a soundproof booth in the back. A crowd spreading into the third deck. Michigan State and Kansas having just finished one of the better early season games you'll see.
On the sidelines, Mike Krzyzewski, college basketball's winningest coach, and John Calipari, college basketball's hottest coach. Two programs with a combined 11 NCAA championships, more than 4,000 wins, 12 national championships, 11 national players of the year, 90 All-Americans and 30 Final Fours.
It felt like March.
But it wasn't March. Calipari didn't bring a calendar into his news conference after his No. 3-ranked Wildcats lost to No. 9 Duke 75-68 Tuesday night. But he might as well have.
"Let me just tell you folks, we're a November team right now," Calipari said. "We have to get better. If this is what we look like in December and January, we're not going to be the team everybody thinks. We've got to figure out exactly how we're going to play, or have an idea. And we have to get after it."
Imagine Calipari on that game show, Wheel of Fortune. And every game, the wheel spins, and a few more letters light up on the board, and Ashley Judd turns them around until Calipari can spell out exactly what it is his team is meant to be.
Against Duke, some more lights came on, both for Calipari and his players. The Alex Poythress light came on, for one. The freshman with the first-guy-off-the-bus physique had been playing more like a shooting guard than an enforcer. Calipari spent two days working on his mental and physical approach to the game; namely, getting to the rim and dunking on people, and Poythress responded with 20 points and eight rebounds.
"He's a beast," Calipari said. "That's what he needed to look like. It's who he is. He's not a two-guard. He is a beast. So be a beast. I don't want to see any of the cute stuff. Get the ball by the guy and dunk on somebody. And he did it. Tip dunk, and then shoot a couple of threes when you can. And that's what he did."
A couple of other lights went on. With starting point guard Ryan Harrow home sick, the Wildcats turned the ball over just 13 times and went the final 12 minutes with only one turnover, a costly one, when Archie Griffin drove the lane and lost the ball with UK down five and 47 seconds remaining.
In the second half, Calipari used some pick-and-roll game with Goodwin and Nerlens Noel and the result was so good that Krzyzewski mentioned it after the game.
"Goodwin is going to be a star," Krzyzewski said. "I mean, he's an elite athlete and can break you down. He and Noel with the ball screen, boy, it's dangerous."
Calipari noticed the same thing.
"We went pick-and-roll and the way it looked, we should've done it the whole game," he said. "But then you see us in the post and you say, 'Well, you should've done that the whole game.' We're still trying to figure out our team."
Almost from the start, one thing was evident. UK was the more talented team. Even with Duke big man Mason Plumlee playing excellent basketball, UK claimed an early 6-point lead. They still led by five with just under 10 minutes to play in the first half, then Seth Curry hit a three and Plumlee scored six straight points. When Duke took a 25-23 lead on a three-pointer by Ryan Kelly, it would never trail again.
The Blue Devils made their first four three-pointers of the second half, the last of which put them up 58-44 with 9:25 to play.
But after that three, Krzyzewski called timeout to get his team focused on defense and putting the game away. Instead, it gave Calipari a chance to regroup his team. The Wildcats responded with a set play that had Noel from the high post feeding Poythress on the baseline for a slam, then a Noel steal led to a dunk by Kyle Wiltjer and UK would put together its own run.
The young UK team would hold Duke scoreless for more than four minutes late, pulling within three points twice in the final 3 1/2 minutes. But each time, Curry, a fifth-year senior, responded. He drove and was fouled to move Duke's margin back to five from the free-throw line with 2:04 left, then when Poythress hit a jumper to cut the deficit to three again with 1:37 left, Curry drove and scored on a layup with 1:09 left, and UK never got closer. Curry finished with 23 points and Plumlee had 18, but just four after halftime.
"You know they're going to make a run," Krzyzewski said. "They've won over 100 games over the past three years and they're the national champions, their program, so they're going to make a run. I thought our guys handled that well."
It was a good game. I can't stand losing, but it was a good game," Calipari said. "Our fans, I want to thank our fans for making the trek down here. It was amazing. You walk in and it looked like we were at home. I mean, it's crazy. And I think it helped our team. This is all new to this team. We're trying to figure out how we're playing. We don't play hard enough yet. We don't compete on every possession yet. We don't go after every rebound yet. We don't know how to finish off games yet. We haven't really figured out totally how we're going to play. It's just going to take time. . . . We didn't play that bad. We shot 49 percent, only had 13 turnovers. ... They only had 8 turnovers and make a couple of threes that we don't make."
Noel is improving rapidly. He finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 blocks. And played 38 minutes. There's no way Calipari expected him to be playing 38 minutes against Duke when practice began a month ago. Goodwin finished with 16 points and four assists. Wiltjer had only five points, but Duke committed to taking away his perimeter looks and he didn't force the issue, with one exception.
Willie Cauley-Stein logged only six minutes and scored four points, and Calipari said after the game that he should have played the freshman big man more.
"The only guy I needed to get in there more was Willie," Calipari said. "He had a little foul trouble and then he had that one or two (mistakes) – and I'm still learning about him, and I didn't know if I could put him back in and he'd be OK, because he missed a shot, he missed a rebound, he fumbled a ball back-to-back-to–back. I don't know him well enough yet. Could I take him out and put him back in, or is he rattled? Well, this isn't the game to figure that out. Especially not when we had a chance to win the game."
There will be plenty of time to figure out that -- and more -- before March.
"We had our chances," Calipari said. "What happens when you're a freshman team … we had about three spells of a minute and a half that we do something dumb on our end and they come down and, what a good team is going to do, they capitalize."
Duke did. But all indications are, after two tough tests to open the season, come March, this UK team will, too.
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