Coming into last Saturday’s matchup in the battle of the bluegrass, one thing was clear: the environment and atmosphere would be one of the best college basketball has seen all season, and likely will. Though the result was not quite what Louisville fans were hoping for on their home court, the game itself was one of the most intense games you’ll ever see outside of the NCAA Tournament. For those that don’t live in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, it’s hard to understand what this game means. As a Kentucky resident, it’s easy to conclude that this rivalry could compete with any rivalry, professional or collegiate.
Most basketball experts, and myself, viewed this game as the last super dangerous game on Kentucky’s schedule, and likely the only game that could derail an undefeated season. However, in every big game Kentucky has played in, it has competed at the highest level, with a full team effort. They haven’t relied on any one player to get it done, their play as a unit has carried them this far, and I would be shocked if it didn’t carry them to a national championship in April.
Both of these teams rank in the top five in all of college basketball in defensive efficiency, and it showed in Saturday’s battle. Louisville held Kentucky, a team stacked with nine active players destined for the NBA, to just 58 points on 42% shooting. They were playing their game defensively. The Cards were turning the Cats over, and racking up deflections, a stat that Rick Pitino teams pride themselves on accumulating. There was just one problem: Louisville simply couldn’t convert those turnovers and deflections into points. It almost seemed like Kentucky spooked every Louisville player out of making shots. The Cardinals shot an embarrassing 25.9% from the field, with so many shots going in and out it seemed like a statistical anomaly.
With regards to individual performances, the guards were the players that really shined through. For Louisville, Terry Rozier continues to demonstrate why he should be a first round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. He was able to drop in 15 points against UK. Kentucky freshman Tyler Ulis defies all odds, standing at just 5’9″. Ulis scored clutch bucket after clutch bucket, helping the Wildcats keep the Cards at bey. The Kentucky big men didn’t disappoint, but the physicality of the game under the basket prevented them from racking up big numbers. Karl Anthony-Towns was able to accumulate nine rebounds and 10 points, but was overshadowed by Ulis’ stellar performance.
So now we come to the biggest question of the day, “what have we learned?” The way I see it, there a few major takeaways:
First, if Kentucky is playing well, there is not a single team in the country that could beat them. They are deep enough that having one NBA lottery pick in foul trouble only means that another one gets to see the floor. Even after losing Alex Poythress, a player who many believed would establish himself as an all-American this season, Kentucky hasn’t missed a beat and just keeps on rolling. It will take a miracle for Kentucky to lose a game the rest of the season.
Second, Montrezl Harrell proved that he can hang with the big boys. Though he only accumulated nine points, he was able to tally eight rebounds among the trees of Kentucky’s big men. Harrell played all 40 minutes in this game, and not once did he appear to be bullied. Throw in two steals and a blocked shot, and his individual game looked solid.
Lastly, Louisville simply is not there yet. Rick Pitino’s teams have a knack for having it all come together right before tournament time. This team appears to be no different. The Cards had a pathetic display of offense, totalling one lonesome assist. Simply put, they competed against and lost by eight to a team that is unbeatable. However, they continue to show flashes of greatness, and a loss to Kentucky will not be treated as a blemish on their resumé come Selection Sunday in March.
*Section Photo (above) credit to Andy Lyons, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Jamie Rhodes, USA Today Sports