Duke . . . Kentucky . . . and one question.
Back in November, the preseason Associated Press rankings seemed so normal. There Duke was at No. 9, with Kentucky right behind at No. 10. If the royal couple were polling a little lower than usual, it was because they were so young, but they’d be all right in the end, because they always are.
Could anyone have imagined what would happen next?
Just two weeks until March, Kentucky is 5-13, seemingly headed for its first losing season since 1989, and only its second in 94 years. Duke is 7-8 and flirting with its first miss of the NCAA Tournament since 1995, and second since 1983. Duke and Kentucky: Always together on the main stage, they are now a combined 12-21, the Blue Devils 10th in their conference, the Wildcats 11th. Duke 75th in the NCAA’s latest NET rankings, and Kentucky 79th, both of them behind Abilene Christian.
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Of all the many surprises to come bouncing down college basketball’s winding road this season, the woes of the bluest of the bloods rank high on that list — as opposed to the AP top-25. Two Hall of Fame coaches now try to fix what’s ailing their teams.
Mike Krzyzewski: "We’re not accustomed to losing but we are, and you have to take responsibility and build on it. No excuses and keep going forward."
John Calipari, to the media after the last defeat: "I'm not going to stop. I'm coaching, I'm fighting, I'm battling. I'm playing every game. We've got one game Saturday, I’m not worried about anything else . . . I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t even know who we’re playing."
By the way, it’s Auburn.
What went wrong? Let’s go ask the numbers. They’ll have something to say.
The numbers tell us these two teams no longer could count on intimidating home arenas to stop their bleeding and regain their mojo when needed. Not when Cameron Indoor Stadium sits mostly empty on game nights and the noise from Rupp Arena is a whisper of its usual Wildcat Nation roar. Home-court advantage can be a life raft in troubled times, a spark for better days. But there isn’t much home-court advantage anywhere this pandemic season.
In his first 40 seasons, Krzyzewski averaged 1.7 home defeats. Duke has already lost four times in Cameron. The Blue Devils recently went nearly 20 years without losing a non-conference game at home. This season, they lost two in eight days. Including the 15-pointer to Illinois, Krzyzewski’s worst non-ACC home defeat in 38 years.
Coming into this season, Calipari was 183-11 in Rupp Arena. These Wildcats are 3-5. Alabama, with a 20-point rout, administered their most lopsided home loss in 32 seasons.
The numbers tell us that the tasks both coaches faced — meshing together lineups of talented newcomers — has been tough to complete. They always used the preseason for much of that, but it was nearly gutted in 2020 by COVID.
Kentucky has started 10 different players. None of them have been consistent enough to average so much as 12 points a game. "We’ve got inexperienced guys who have only played for themselves," Calipari said. "I’ve had it before, but I’ve had the summer and the fall. And they figure out at some point in the year, we need each other."
Duke has used nine different lineups in 15 games. "Youth has to be developed and in our program, we’re not accustomed to that," Krzyzewski said. "It’s really disappointing for them … for me too … but you want this to happen quicker for them than it’s happening. I’m on their side forever and we’re going to keep going and keep pushing. That’s what you should do and it’ll pay off at some time. It’s not paying off for wins right now."
The numbers tell us Duke has labored with an astonishing imbalance in free throws. The Blue Devils’ six ACC losses have come by a combined 28 points, but they have been outscored from the line by 41. Their six opponents have made 22 more free throws than Duke has shot. For the season, the difference is 196-153, which should shock the many anti-Duke voices who think Coach K always gets most of the whistles.
Consider Duke’s advantage in free throws the past six years: 501-389, 551-403, 562-383, 642-492, 626-387 and 610-379. This year’s difference must reflect defense too often beaten, or offense not attacking enough, or . . . something.
The numbers tell us the Blue Devils’ defense has struggled lately. They scored 87 points against North Carolina and 89 against Notre Dame and lost to both. In their past three games, their opponents have shot 53.6 percent, including 52.8 from the 3-point arc. At last check, Duke was 300th in the country in field-goal percentage defense, at 46.9 percent — the worst since 1986. The last time Duke had a lower shooting percentage than its opponents was 1984.
The numbers tell us Kentucky can’t shoot. Not on some nights, anyway. In the Wildcats first loss against Richmond, they missed all 10 3-pointers. It would be a hint of the clanks ahead. They are now 309th in the nation in 3-pointers per game, and 280th in overall field-goal percentage.
The numbers tell us they can be too loose with the basketball, too. Kentucky has 55 more turnovers than assists, not a good indicator for guard play. Between the woeful outside shooting and the turnovers, the sputtering offense has wasted some good defense. The numbers tell us that, too. Calipari came into this season 202-19 at Kentucky when holding the opponent 40 percent or less. The Wildcats are 4-5 this year.
The numbers tell us finding ways to win close games has been an issue. All six Duke ACC losses have come by single digits, Kentucky is 2-7 in games decided by seven or fewer points.
The late stages of games have been a horror movie on a repeating loop for the Wildcats. Olivier Sarr had good shots to beat Notre Dame and tie Louisville in the final seconds, but missed both. Had Kentucky made a free throw and not committed a late turnover, Georgia wouldn’t have had a chance to win on an inbounds play at the buzzer. When the Wildcats did appear to have grabbed a game away with late heroics — Davion Mintz’ 3-pointer with 12 seconds left gave them the lead against Arkansas — the Razorbacks yanked it back in the last five seconds.
Kentucky is plus-5 in the first 36 minutes of regulation, and minus-39 in the last four minutes. That number says a lot, too.
The numbers say both teams have had bad luck with injuries. Keion Brooks Jr. was the solitary Kentucky player returning with experience, but a leg injury kept him out until January, and he has been in only nine games. Five-star freshman guard Terrence Clarke, expected to be one of the backcourt leaders, is hurt and has been out since Dec. 26. Duke’s freshman star Jalen Johnson had 19 points and 19 rebounds in the season opener. But he missed a month with a foot injury.
The two coaches carry on, plotting a resurgence, looking at numbers they so rarely have had to face.
Krzyzewski after yet another close this week, to Notre Dame: "This will pay off at some point if you stay with it. It did in '82, '83, '95, '96 and in 2006-07. There are times in our program where you learn to appreciate the winning that has come at such a high level, and how tough losing is. We as a program need to keep learning that and keep appreciating what it takes to win. You don’t do that by not working hard."
Calipari, after Kentucky nearly beat Arkansas: "We’re looking for singles and bunts. I don’t need home runs. We’re not capable of hitting home runs, so let’s not. Let’s just do all the bunts and great screens and execution and everybody do their thing together.
"I told them today, they worked hard enough and had enough bad things happen to them. They deserve something good to happen. But no one is giving it to you, you’ve got to take it. We got closer today to taking it."
The numbers speak of frustration. The words of players do, too.
Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr.: "I’ve been sick of [losing] since our first loss. We all hate losing. At this point in our season, and Coach says it all the time, we have no choice but to get better. We just have to keep fighting, keep playing hard. Things are going to start going our way."
Kentucky’s Brandon Boston Jr. "There’s a lot of adversity and hate this year. We just have each other’s backs and tell each other to just smile through everything."
The numbers say there hasn’t been a lot to smile about this season. There’s still time, but it’s starting to get late.