Kentucky’s unexpected blowout loss to Duke puts John Calipari and the Wildcats in uncharted territory

INDIANAPOLIS — John Calipari has, for as long as I’ve known him, described early-season games as “big, if you win them” — his point being that signature victories in November can do a lot for a team in a variety of ways, but losses are rarely more than blips. No big deal. Whatever.

In general, I agree with him.

But there’s no denying that what happened to his Kentucky Wildcats late Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the second game of the Champions Classic felt like something more than just a minor setback or missed opportunity. It was humiliation on a massive stage. Two top-five teams with five-star freshmen faced off, and one (Duke) completely overwhelmed and embarrassed the other (Kentucky) by a final score of 118-84. It was the most lopsided loss of Calipari’s coaching career, college or pro. It was the third-most lopsided loss in college basketball history in a game between two top-five teams. And Duke’s four freshmen — RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones — outscored Kentucky’s entire team 89-84.

Woo, boy.

“We’ll watch the tape and move on,” Calipari said.

And I’m sure that’s true to some degree. But the memory of that #BankersLifeBeatdown will last forever in some basketball circles because it was RJ and Zion’s incredible debuts, and because it was so impossible to see it coming.

Understand, Calipari has been a head coach for 30 seasons now. He once had a 10-win UMass team that lost 11 times by double-digits. He once had a 16-loss Memphis team that was so dysfunctional players fist-fought in the locker room. He coached the Nets for crying out loud. And yet nobody — not Rick Pitino’s great Kentucky teams, not even Michael Jordan’s Bulls — had ever beaten one of his teams as badly as Duke beat his team in this season-opener.

And UK was ranked second! In the entire country!

“I haven’t had many of these types of games,” said Calipari, who added that he told his players, with about eight minutes remaining, that he would be calling no timeouts — and that they would be subbed if they dared commit a foul.

“Let [the clock] run,” Calipari instructed.

In other words, it was time to start moving on even though an astonished national audience was still watching via ESPN — glued to the possibility of one more Zion highlight. To be clear, long term and big picture, I think Kentucky will be fine. I really do. Clearly, there are some things — lots of things? — to workout. And, obviously, the Wildcats’ five-star freshmen aren’t anything close to Duke’s five-star freshmen, which was ultimately the biggest factor in this blowout. For one of the few times in the past two decades, Calipari found himself completely out-manned. That’s the truth. But you don’t have to match Duke player-for-player to win the SEC or go to a Final Four, and that’s something that shouldn’t get lost by prisoners of the moment who now think the Blue Devils are about to go undefeated and Kentucky is 48 hours away from losing to Southern Illinois, UK’s opponent Friday.

Bottom line, Duke probably isn’t as great as it looked against Kentucky. And Kentucky can’t possibly be as bad as it looked against Duke. But, either way, it’s now John Calipari’s job to take a roster of five-star prospects who were just put to shame in their season-opener and mold them into a cohesive unit that uses the next six weeks rebuilding confidence and improving in general in advance of a Dec. 22 showdown with North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic at Chicago’s United Center.

Can Calipari do it?

Yeah, probably. But in all his years on the sideline, believe it or not, he’s never had to. That means this is a new challenge for the Hall of Fame coach — and one that literally nobody thought two days ago he’d be dealing with right now.

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