November 16, 2015

Skal Labissiere has heeded Kentucky coach John Calipari's advice to be an offensive presence.

The 6-foot-11 freshman leads the second-ranked Wildcats with an average of 17.5 points through two games. He's coming off a 26-point performance against NJIT, a game in which he floated jumpers, slammed home fierce dunks and generally had his way against the smaller Highlanders.

But NJIT and Duke are very different opponents, and Labissiere and the Wildcats will see how they size up against the defending national champions and fifth-ranked Blue Devils on Tuesday night in Chicago as part of the Champions Classic.

To Calipari, the matchup is coming a few games too late. Wisconsin eliminated Kentucky in the Final Four last season before the Wildcats could get a shot at Duke.

"I wish we were playing a year ago at the end," Calipari said. "Mike (Krzyzewski) has done a heck of a job, because when you watch the tape, they're driving the ball. They're running good stuff to put them in positions to drive the ball. He is mixing up their defense like I've never seen."

Labissiere also looks good statistically; now the 225-pounder from Haiti must take his game to another level physically.

Kentucky (2-0) and Duke (2-0) are more guard-heavy after the departure of low-post talent to the NBA. Though the Blue Devils lost 6-11 Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, they still feature big bodies, including 7-footers Marshall Plumlee and freshman Antonio Vrankovic.

Duke's frontcourt must try to contain the lanky Labissiere.

''This is going to be a challenge for Skal because Plumlee plays so physical,'' Calipari said Monday. ''This is a grit game, a grind-it game. They do a great job of wedging on rebounds. If you're not ready to fight, they're going to get offensive rebounds.''

Calipari has often used words such as grit and fight as things he wants to see from his made-over roster and Labissiere in particular. Though the coach has downplayed initial comparisons of Labissiere to recent Kentucky stars such as Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns, he obviously wants his big man to show that same ferocity around the basket.

That will take time, but Labissiere's game has shown other things to feel good about.

Saturday's explosion followed a nine-point, five-rebound debut that was solid if unspectacular given the hype around him as one of the nation's top newcomers. Calipari told Labissiere before the NJIT game to expect the ball more, and the rest was easy as the big man relished shooting chances out to nine feet.

''I wouldn't say he was tentative,'' point guard Tyler Ulis said of Labissiere's debut, ''but it was his first game and he hadn't learned how to fight yet. But now he's doing what he has to do fighting in the low post, and when he gets the ball, he's scoring.''

Labissiere's next step is learning the dirty work of guarding the rim and rebounding. His shot-blocking potential seems there with him and junior Marcus Lee sharing the team lead with six rejections each, and he's just six behind him on the boards.

Challenged by his coach to take charge more with the ball, Labissiere now looks forward to the opportunity to develop that same edge defending the basket. Especially against a Duke squad featuring players he can also look in the eye.

''I just have to be more aggressive,'' Labissiere said. ''That's one of the things I'm still working on. I've gotten better and determined to get even better at it.''

Duke's starting five isn't exactly high on experience, though things came seamlessly on the offensive end in Saturday's 113-75 home win over Bryant. The Blue Devils took a 59-32 halftime lead and shot 53.4 percent for the game while hitting 13 of 26 from 3-point range.

Grayson Allen had a career-high 28 points, Matt Jones scored all of his career-best 19 in the first half and top freshman Brandon Ingram scored 21 on 7- of-11 shooting after going 5 of 16 in Friday's 92-74 win over Siena.

"Our freshmen, I thought, played with much better enthusiasm and more decisiveness than they did (against Siena)," said Krzyzewski, whose team has won the past three meetings with Kentucky, though they last played in 2012.

The Blue Devils are, however, seeking a little defensive improvement after allowing Bryant to also hit 13 of 26 from 3-point range. Their two opponents have shot 47.6 percent from beyond the arc, but Kentucky is connecting on 28.9.

"We're going to look at them and get after it defensively," Ingram said. "(We'll go through the) same preparation - our first road game and our first test game, so we're going to listen to coach and let the older guys lead us."

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