Kentucky coach John Calipari eager to measure Wildcats' progress against Duke

Kentucky coach John Calipari says he is eager to measure the Wildcats' progress against the Duke Blue Devils.

Whether his young team is prepared for that type of challenge is another matter.

"He’s trying everything to figure out what he likes for the team," Calipari said of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "I imagine they’ll do it in the game... We’re not going to be ready for everything. It’s too early."

No. 2 Kentucky (2-0) faces No. 5 Duke (2-0) on Tuesday night at the United Center in Chicago as part of the Champions Classic. Kansas and Michigan State will square off in the second game of the annual doubleheader. 

The Cats and Blue Devils appeared to be on a collision course in last year's NCAA Tournament before Wisconsin upset previously undefeated UK in the Final Four. Duke went on to beat the Badgers in the national championship game.

Much has changed for both programs since that time. Kentucky had six players selected in the NBA Draft, including No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and fellow lottery picks Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker. Duke produced three first-round picks, including Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones. The two blue-blood programs responded by signing the No. 1 and No. 2 national recruiting classes, respectively, but the talent is raw in mid-November.

Calipari has been mixing and matching lineups frequently during the Cats' first two games, playing a deeper rotation than some observers had expected.

“We’re still trying to figure out personnel,” he said. "We're a different team with Derek Willis on the court. We're a different team with Isaiah (Briscoe) on the court. Where do we fit in Charles (Matthews)? This may be a good game for Isaac (Humphries) going against (Duke 7-footer Marshall) Plumlee.This may be his chance to go do his thing.

"All of that is out there, and I just want these kids to be excited. I"m excited about this game. I woke up at 6 o'clock, like, what's going on? I'm excited to coach this game. I don't know if we can win the game, I just love the challenge to see where we are right now."

The Cats have five players averaging double-figures through two games, led by freshman center/forward Skal Labissiere at 17.5 points per game. Freshman guard Jamal Murray has averaged 13.5 points, and Willis, a previously seldom-used junior forward, has been a pleasant surprise at 12.5 points per game. Freshman guard Briscoe is coming off an 11-point, 12-rebound effort in his collegiate debut after sitting out the first game with a bone bruise to a knee.

Kentucky will have to contend with Duke's familiar drive-and-pitch offensive approach that typically produces a lot of 3-point attempts. Sophomore guard Grayson Allen has had the hot hand early in the season, averaging 27 points per game. Senior forward Amile Jefferson has posted 15 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Freshman forward Brandon Ingram and freshman guard Luke Kennard, both one-time elite UK recruiting targets, are averaging 18 and 10 points, respectively.

"They fly," Calipari said. "They fly up and down the court."

Labissiere SEC Co-Freshman of The Week

Coming off a 26-point performance in Kentucky’s 87-57 win over NJIT, Skal Labissiere was named the SEC’s Co-Freshman of the Week on Monday by the league office. He shared honors with LSU’s Antonio Blakeney, a one-time UK recruit.

Labissiere, a native of Haiti, went 10-of-12 from the floor against NJIT. He was only the second freshman under Calipari to score 25 or more points in one of his first two collegiate games. Terrence Jones had 25 points in the 2010-11 season opener.

Mississippi State’s Gavin Ware, a senior forward, won SEC Player of the Week honors after scoring a career-high 26 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in the Bulldogs’ 106-88 win over Eastern Washington.

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