There was nothing pretty about perfection for Kentucky last season even as it became the first team to ever start a campaign 38-0. The Wildcats played a brutal, grinding brand of basketball that relied on smothering opponents defensively with a front line bigger than any in the NBA. Kentucky was unquestionably great, but it was rarely confused for a team that was fun to watch.
John Calipari knew things would be different this season after his top seven scorers each decided to turn pro. Roster construction has always been a year-to-year proposition for Calipari, and he's mastered the ability to reload on the fly. He's just now seeing the early returns for his new team, but a few things are already apparent if the Wildcats' 74-63 win over Duke at Champions Classic on Tuesday is any indication.
Where Kentucky was once huge and plodding, it's now small and quick. Rim protection has been replaced with ball pressure, and a careful half-court offense has given way to a group that thrives in transition. It's all coalesced to turn Kentucky from a bully ball behemoth that played at the slowest adjusted tempo of the Calipari era to a team that's suddenly stylish and sleek .
"You know what's amazing, last year we had 7-foot, 7-foot, 6'10," Calipari said after the game. "This year we're 5'9, 6'2, 6'4. Last year it was 'why did you throw it to the post every time?' Now it's 'why are you driving it every time?' We're just a different team, so we're playing different.
"The whole idea today was to put it on the floor, move that ball and get some good spacing. We went to dribble drive. I'm back to teaching that like I was at the other school."
Calipari was slyly referencing his time at Memphis, where Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts once powered a penetration-heavy attack that went all the way to the national championship game. Calipari has doubled down on that formula this year by adapting to a team that went from starting three traditional big men to three point guards.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles are out and Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Tyler Ulis are in. A team that was once defined by its giants in the middle now relies on a barrage of skilled guards to break you down and finish the job. The formula might be different, but Duke found out on Tuesday the end result will often be the same.
No player signifies the change from last year quite like Murray, the 6'4 guard who essentially replaces the 6'10, 250-pound Lyles on the wing. Lyles was a power forward playing out of position at the three out of necessity. Murray's place in the NBA will almost certainly be running point. For as good as Lyles was, Murray's diverse game gives Kentucky's offense an entirely new look.
The Wildcats broke the game open in the second half as Murray found his rhythm. He was killing Duke in the pick-and-roll, whether as a crafty finisher around the rim ...
... or a facilitator once he broke down the defense:
Murray finished with 16 points, five assists and five rebounds, but he's just one cog in Calipari's new machine.
Tyler Ulis spent his freshman season as an understudy behind Andrew Harrison, but there's no doubt he has the reins this year. Ulis never came off the floor against Duke, playing all 40 minutes to finish with 18 points, six assists, four rebounds and two steals. He got wherever he wanted on the court offensively, and his aggressive defense helped Kentucky earn an 18-4 advantage in fast break points.
Freshman Isaiah Briscoe arrived at Kentucky in a mold similar to the best guards Calipari has ever worked with. He's an unrelenting attacker who leveraged his strength and athleticism against Duke's shaky perimeter defense from the tip. Briscoe scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half and showed he gives Kentucky someone who can take the ball all the way to the rim and finish once he gets there. For as good as the Wildcats were last season, that was a dimension they lacked.
"We're gonna be trouble in a fast pace game like this," Ulis said after the win. "Whoever gets the ball, me, Zay or Jamal, can get out and push the break. We all understand that we have different types of games and can all do a lot of great things. We play well off each other."
Even as Kentucky opened this year tied atop the AP Poll and has now dethroned reigning champion Duke on the first week of the season, there's still little doubt last season's roster was more talented. Whereas last year's eventual No. 1 pick Towns was a fully formed monster from the jump, this year's potential No. 1 Skal Labissiere is far from a finished product.
Labissiere struggled against Marshall Plumlee on Tuesday, but that's understandable given the opposition had four years and 35 pounds on him. He fouled out in 13 minutes after scoring seven points.
Stylistically, this team is starting to feel like it stands in direct contrast to last year's group. Perhaps that's the scariest thing: Calipari is showing he can adapt to his talent on the fly and still produce a national title contender.
For the vast majority of last season, Kentucky was unanimously considered the best team in America. It just didn't win the national title thanks to a loaded Final Four and the variance that comes in a single elimination format. The rest of the country might not be so lucky this time around.