Two staples of John Calipari’s teams at Kentucky: they start each season with several prominent players who are low on experience but bring high expectations, and they play another highly ranked team relatively early in the schedule.
That was, of course, the case again Tuesday night, when a No. 2-ranked UK team filled with five-star freshmen matched up with No. 4 Duke at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.
It was the first time in Calipari’s 10 seasons at Kentucky that his team has actually opened the season against a ranked opponent, though that first game against a ranked foe has come during the first week of the season over each of the past seven years.
In other words, an immediate matchup with a worthy opponent is the norm for Calipari’s Cats.
The results of Tuesday night’s game — a 118-84 shellacking at the hands of the Blue Devils — were far from normal. Duke’s point total and margin of victory were the most ever — in any kind of game — against a Calipari-coached UK squad. His previous nine teams had never given up more than 78 points or lost by more than seven points in their first game of the season against a ranked foe. (The Cats’ 84 points Tuesday night were also the most ever in the first game of a season against a ranked opponent in the Calipari era.)
Despite all the youth, Calipari’s UK teams are 6-4 in their first game against a ranked opponent with three of those victories coming against top-10 teams. The other losses before Tuesday came last season to No. 4 Kansas, in 2013 to No. 2 Michigan State and in 2012 to ninth-ranked Duke — all in the Champions Classic event.
Some interesting freshman-centric facts from the Cats’ first games against ranked opponents in the Calipari era:
▪ Calipari has started a total of 29 freshmen in those 10 games (with Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro all starting against Duke on Tuesday). That means he’s started only 21 non-freshmen in such games.
▪ Keldon Johnson led UK with 23 points Tuesday night — the sixth time a freshman has led the Cats in scoring in their first game vs. a ranked opponent. The non-freshmen to lead UK in scoring in such games were junior Patrick Patterson (19 points vs. North Carolina in 2009), and sophomores Doron Lamb (17 points vs. Kansas in 2011), Dakari Johnson (11 points vs. Kansas in 2014) and Tyler Ulis (18 points vs. Duke in 2015).
▪ Only two previous UK freshmen have scored more points in such games than Johnson did Tuesday night. Julius Randle scored 27 against Michigan State in 2013, and Brandon Knight had 24 against Washington in 2010. Malik Monk matched Johnson’s total of 23 points against Michigan State in 2016.
▪ Tyler Herro, surprisingly, led the Cats in rebounds with nine boards Tuesday night. Only two UK players in the Calipari era have grabbed more rebounds in such games: Terrence Jones (17 against Washington in 2010) and Julius Randle (13 against Michigan State in 2013).
▪ Herro also led UK with five assists Tuesday night. John Wall had the most by a UK freshman in his first game against a ranked opponent with seven assists against North Carolina in Calipari’s first season. De’Aaron Fox had six assists against Michigan State in 2016.
▪ Kentucky was bad Tuesday night, but no individual player turned the ball over more than three times. Some of Calipari’s biggest stars can’t say the same. Julius Randle and Brandon Knight both had eight turnovers in their first game against a ranked opponent, while John Wall had seven, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Marquis Teague had six, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bam Adebayo had five.
▪ Skal Labissiere remains the only UK freshman in the Calipari era to foul out in his first game against a ranked opponent (in 13 minutes, no less). Fifteen others have accumulated four fouls in such games, including Ashton Hagans and EJ Montgomery on Tuesday night.
▪ This Kentucky team is unlikely to face another ranked opponent until Dec. 22, when the Cats play North Carolina (currently ranked No. 8) in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.
UK freshmen in first game vs. ranked team
Date: Nov. 6, 2018 (first game of season)
Date: Nov. 14, 2017 (third game of season)
Date: Nov. 15, 2016 (third game of season)
Date: Nov. 17, 2015 (third game of season)
Date: Nov. 18. 2014 (third game of season)
Date: Nov. 12, 2013 (third game of season)
Date: Nov. 13, 2012 (second game of season)
Date: Nov. 15, 2011 (second game of season)
Date: Nov. 23, 2010 (fourth game of season)
Date: Dec. 5, 2009 (eighth game of season)