ATLANTA — Listening to Kentucky coach John Calipari moan about his team being young is like listening to water at Niagara Falls. After awhile you tune it out.
But this time he’s right. This Kentucky team is very talented, but it has a long way to go.
Duke beat the Wildcats 75-66 on Tuesday in a game where Kentucky had plenty of opportunities. And in watching it, you got the sense that had this game been played in January instead of November, the outcome probably would have been different.
The Wildcats were down 12 points midway through the second half before going on a run to cut the deficit to three. But that was as close as it got. In the end, Duke’s experience prevailed.
“Look, they are a good team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward.
Then he heaped praise on the Kentucky freshmen, saying: “(Archie) Goodwin and (Nerlens) Noel, and (Alex) Poythress are elite athletes. They are special, and they are going to get better. … I wouldn’t mind having some of their guys.”
Krzyzewski isn’t alone. Kentucky, as always, is chock full of special freshmen athletes most coaches would love to have. But they are, as Coach Cal put it after this game, “still a November team; still a team that doesn’t know what it should be.”
“We had about three spells of about a minute and half (apiece) where we came down and did something (bad) on our end and they did what good teams are going to do: they capitalized. Those three stretches cost us the game.”
During those spells the young Kentucky players committed grabbing fouls, missed open passes, made poor driving decisions and took even poorer shot choices. When the Wildcats fell behind 29-23 at the 3:55 mark in the first half, it looked like Cal’s head was going to explode.
Poythress showed spurts of brilliance reminiscent of last year’s Wildcats star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He led all Kentucky scorers with 20 points and pulled down eight rebounds, showing levels of athleticism that got the boisterous Wildcats fans on their feet.
“Alex is a beast,” Cal said. “I’ve had kids that I’ve told them ‘Your job is to be a playmaker. Your role is to go up and make a block, make a play, drive in and have a huge dunk. … You’re not a two guard. You’re a beast. Play like a beast.’ ”
Poythress was a lot more beastly in this outing than he was in the opener against Maryland, but he still has some learning ahead. He committed a few silly fouls that had Cal yelling “Why?” from the sidelines, and he failed to take advantage of some mismatches on offense.
“Look we’re still learning who we are,” Cal said. “We’re still figuring out what everybody can do and should do. We’ll get there. We’ll get better.”
Noel looked great in spurts as well, scoring 16 and grabbing eight boards. He also had three blocked shots and four steals.
“I tried to play as aggressive as I could,” Noel said. “Going for some of those steals worked and some didn’t, so I was more careful in the second half. But I always try to be aggressive.”
Despite immense physical skills, Noel left his feet early too often and failed to kick the ball outside to the open man on more than a couple of occasions. He is also in the unenviable position of trying to fill the shoes of Anthony Davis, one of the best big men in Kentucky history.
Then there is Goodwin, the kid from Little Rock who arrived in Lexington with expectations of being the next Kentucky point guard to make it big. He had a good night, finishing with 16 points and six rebounds. He also showed a lot of poise leading the offense down the stretch.
But he too has a long way to go in his development as a player and a grownup. Were it not for the tattoos, Goodwin could have passed for an oversized middle-schooler. He was one of the more physically undeveloped players on the floor and a pipsqueak compared to Poythress.
Goodwin’s helpless expression when Duke took a six-point lead with 23 seconds left — hands raised and the forlorn look of someone who needed a hug — said a lot about where this team is now, and how far it needs to go in the coming weeks.
“Look, if we are at this same level in December and January and February, then we aren’t going to be the kind of team everybody thinks we are,” Cal said. “But we’ll go back and learn. This wasn’t a bad game.”
Then, as if on cue, Cal said what everyone knew was coming: “We’re young.”
He smiled and shrugged as he said it.
And this time everyone who heard him nodded in agreement.