Wow, that was worth staying up late, and feeling kind of miserable this morning, for.
All the pre-game chatter amongst KU fans, at least the ones I interacted with, was, “Well, I just hope we make a game of it and the kids get some experience that will pay off later.” Funny what a sloppy season opener can do to expectations. Some of that pessimism was because unlike KU, Duke returned several players from last year, and added a transfer with D1 experience. And, to be honest, as much as we all love Bill Self, his teams are often kind of lackluster early and reach their peak after New Year’s Day. We had talent, the thought went, but between Duke’s experience and Coach K probably having his team a little further along in their development, it was looking like a loss for KU.
But it was KU that imposed their will last night in Chicago. They countered every Duke run. Self made adjustments to slow down Jabari Parker. Andrew Wiggins got hot. Perry Ellis was outstanding all night.1 Wayne Selden and Frank Mason showed zero fear. Joel Embiid was good more than bad. And Jamari Traylor started to show some more of that “Little T-Rob” potential many people think he has.
Oh, and KU knocked down their freaking free throws while Duke missed theirs. How often does that happen?
In the end, it was Duke players fouling out while KU made steals, grabbed rebounds, and converted on the other end to put the game away.
It’s only November 12, but man, was that fun.
Other assorted thoughts:
Beating another traditional power is always sweet, no matter what month of the year. But the wins like this, where it’s back-and-forth all night, close late, and then your team finishes out on a big run, might be the best. This one had a KU-Carolina, 2012 feel to it.
It’s weird that KU and Duke have only played ten times, all since November 1985. With the exception of the 1990 game, when KU was on probation and got hammered at Cameron, they’ve all been terrific, important games. Four NCAA games, three in the Final Four, one in the title game. Games in the preseason NIT, Maui Classic, and now Champions Classic. If memory serves, at least five of the games haven’t been decided until the final minute. Hopefully they’ll play again before the next Champions Classic meeting, scheduled for 2016 in New York.
Funny how different Wiggins looks, physically, from Parker and Kentucky’s Julius Randle. Randle is a beast. Parker has an NBA body now. But Wiggins clearly needs to add size and strength. As I said, that’s why he has all the hype. The other two will get better, but the belief is Wiggins has a higher ceiling. Whether he reaches it or not is another matter. At this moment, he looks like a college player. The other two look like NBA guys.
The persistent rumor a year ago was that Randle loved KU. On the day he announced, I read through a list of recruiting “experts” predicting where he would go. It was like 80% KU. Then he shocked everyone and picked Kentucky. And then Wiggins, who pretty much no one thought would pick KU, ends up in Lawrence. How are things different if Randle picks KU and Wiggins goes to Lexington? Not that I’d trade, but it will be a fun “What If?” game to play all year.
I love Frank Mason. So cool and steady and clutch. And this is a kid who was a couple points on a high school test away from being a sophomore at Towson right now. I told my buddy E in Texas that he reminds me a lot of a dude we watched play when we were in school: Adonis Jordan. Similar build and size. Deceptively quick. Probably will never be the best point guard in the country, but does everything better than most. If he can get to being a consistent shooter the way Adonis was, I might have found my new favorite player.2 Another freshman who had huge plays late, and he was playing against older guys. Oh, and he’s a Bill Self player. Self will keep recruiting point guards for the next three years, but no one is moving Mason off the starting line once he claims a spot.
Brannen Greene has a lovely shot. As I predicted, that will be important this year. I don’t think he’s ready to contribute more than a few minutes a game yet, but he’s going to be a big player in the future. And he has a little Ron Kellogg in his game, another of my all-time favorite Jayhawks. And he wears my favorite number. And he has a great (if slightly misspelled) first name. OK, two guys in the running for my new favorite Jayhawk.
Who am I kidding? I love all these guys.
I don’t mean to be cruel, as I know he’s had health issues, but it’s really hard to listen to Dick Vitale. Most of the game I kept the volume turned down a lower than normal just so I had to make an effort to hear him. He miscalled Wiggins first basket,3 then went on for several minutes wondering why Wiggins wasn’t in the game before someone reminded him that it’s because he had two fouls. Dick’s done a lot to help make college basketball popular and deserves immense credit for that. But he’s been a chore to listen to for years for a variety of reasons. Age and health are making it harder to tolerate him.
In general, ESPN does a crappy job of letting you know the details of the game. The broader narrative is always more important, regardless of who the announcing crew is. How often do they miscall who a foul is on then not correct it? It’s almost to the point where you have to keep a live box score up to see the foul situation.
One shouldn’t get too up or too down for a game in November. Winning last night doesn’t guarantee anything for this squad, and they’re sure to have nights when their youth is a burden. But seeing how almost all the young cats responded in a game like that was a beautiful thing. It’s scary how good this team could be if they all figure it out and harness their individual and collective potentials. Of course, it’s even scarier how good Kentucky could be if they do the same. But I stand by my preseason belief: this is going to be one fun-ass year, even if they look like crap some nights.