CHICAGO — It wasn’t anywhere close to as big as the hypothetical national championship game most college basketball fans wanted last season (until Wisconsin stepped in and altered history). Different stakes, obviously. But it was still Duke-Kentucky. Still Coach K vs. Coach Cal. Still lots of pros. So a capacity crowd of 20,917 filed into the United Center here Tuesday for the first half — and, on paper, better half — of the fifth Champions Classic.
The main takeaway?
Duke misses last season’s stars more than Kentucky misses last season’s stars.
For now, at least.
Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe combined for 46 points, 12 assists, seven steals and just four turnovers to help Kentucky cruise to a 74-63 victory over the reigning national champions. UK was faster, quicker, more athletic and just better in general, pretty much from start to finish. And do the Wildcats miss their top seven scorers from last season at all?
Answer: Yes, probably.
You can’t lose seven pros and not miss something.
But, man, it sure didn’t look like it in this game — not with Ulis running the offense and Murray slashing through the rim and Marcus Lee and Skal Labissiere taking turns dunking.
Meantime, Duke is very much a work in progress.
The Blue Devils are missing four starters from last season’s team — most notably lottery picks Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow. But the player they really missed against Kentucky was point guard Tyus Jones, who, like Okafor and Winslow, is now in the NBA.
Jones was a great college point guard.
Now he’s gone.
So now Duke doesn’t really have a point guard.
Which is a problem — especially with Grayson Allen looking human again.
The star of the opening weekend of this college basketball season — he averaged 27.0 points in Duke’s first two victories– missed his first nine shots against Kentucky and finished with just six points. So the Wildcats won and the Blue Devils lost. And, at this point, the former seems way more likely than the latter to make a return to the Final Four.