CHICAGO - Sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis is a veteran by Kentucky basketball standards, but Wildcats coach John Calipari said his floor leader's maturity is about more than college credits.
"One, he believes in himself. Two, he's a skilled player with a feel for the game," Calipari said. "When he's not on the court we're not the same. He's kind of like a baseball player that watches the ball and he sees the seams. The game is slower for him."
Ulis controlled the game at both ends of the floor and second-ranked Kentucky eased past No. 5 Duke 74-63 on Tuesday in the Champions Classic at the United Center. A Chicago product who didn't start a game last season, Ulis played all 40 minutes, scored a career-high 18 points with six assists, zero turnovers and four rebounds to lead Kentucky's balanced offense. Guard Jamal Murray added 16 points for Kentucky.
"Our guard play was good," Calipari said. "We have good smart guards. I thought Jamal settled a couple times (for tougher shots) when he didn't have to."
Duke was led by forward Amile Jefferson and guard Nate Jones with 16 points each. Kentucky scored 17 points off turnovers.
"Their perimeter was stronger, good guards, and Ulis played a great game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "There aren't too many guys out there like him. Our two big guys played great, they rebounded. They played better than we did, but you can't give them points. We gave them gifts - and they were well-received."
Both teams are dramatically different than the versions that made the 2015 Final Four. Kentucky is smaller, Calipari noted, and Duke is without three players who were first-round picks from the national championship squad, including Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones.
"We weren't who we were supposed to be tonight," Krzyzewski said. "None of our guys were the primetime players last year. When you're put in position where you're the man, it's different. Hopefully we'll be able to do that."
Ulis was six of 12 from the field and was just as valuable on the defensive end.
"God was good to him," Krzyzewski said. "He's got great balance. Even though he's short he's got long arms. He doesn't look like he gets tired. I admired his presence. A great leader."
The Wildcats rattled Duke's leading scorer Grayson Allen (27 points per game) from the first possession, sending an extra defender at the sophomore guard around screens and collapsing when Allen drove into the paint. He notched his first field goal after nine misses on a 3-pointer from the corner with 12:05 remaining in the game and finished with six points on two of 11 shooting. Krzyzewski said he was disappointed Allen exposed the ball when he got into the lane.
"Just try to stop his drive," Ulis said of the team's game plan against Allen, who averaged nine free throws in Duke's first two games. "He's good at drawing fouls. Isaac did a great job walling up. It was a great defensive team effort."
The Wildcats found another gear in the second half. Kentucky grabbed its biggest lead of the game, 63-49 with 7:17 left, on forward Alex Poythress' dunk and then were able to keep the margin above nine the rest of the way.
"It's a different deal here at Kentucky," Calipari said. "We did not approach this game any different than we did NJIT."
Kentucky forward Marcus Lee was a nuisance in the lane for Duke until he fouled out with 10 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks with 5:55 to play. Wildcats center Skal Labissiere, a 6-11 freshman, was whistled for his fifth foul 58 seconds later.
Ulis calmed the pace for Kentucky in the second half. The Wildcats outscored Duke 48-28 in the paint despite Duke's 23 second-chance points.
Kentucky's depth, again a calling card of Calipari's star-studded roster, was a major factor with nine players getting minutes in the first half. Kentucky had 11 offensive rebounds and five blocks at intermission.
"My staff said after: We're deeper than we thought," Calipari said.
The Wildcats were up 37-31 at halftime and held Duke to 36.4 percent shooting from the field.
Duke was on the ropes but the Blue Devils were able to keep their legs with hustle plays from senior forward Marshall Plumlee, who had 12 points in the game. He scored Duke's first nine points and had 11 in the half to go along with a team-high eight boards and five blocks.
Kentucky broke open what was a tight first half to take its biggest lead 31-24 with 2:57 left. Ulis scored an easy bucket created by Lee's block of Allen at the rim. Allen missed his first eight shots, several of them badly with off-balance attempts at the rim altered by Kentucky's legion of shot-blockers.
NOTES: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has won five of seven career meetings with Kentucky. This was the first meeting between Duke and Kentucky since 2012 in the Champions Classic, a 75-68 Blue Devils' victory. ... The Blue Devils travel to Madison Square Garden for the 2K Classic on Friday with a first-round game against VCU. Wisconsin, which lost to Duke in the national championship game in April, faces Georgetown in the other opening-round game. ... Duke and Kentucky are the top teams nationally in wins and winning percentage since the start of the 2009-10 season. The Wildcats were 38-1 last season. ... Duke leads the nation with seven McDonald's All-Americans on its roster.