On Wednesday night in the Yum Center, the 10th ranked Louisville Cardinals defeated the 6th ranked Kentucky Wildcats 73-70. Louisville improves to 11-1 on the season, while the loss sends Kentucky to 10-2. It was the Cats’ first true road test of the season and, as has become a pattern for head coach John Calipari, the Cat’s loss. The game represented the fifth time in Cal’s tenure that Kentucky lost its first road game of the season, one of the unfortunate side effects of having a perennially young team. Despite the loss, however, there are still positives to be gleaned from the game and hope is not gone for the season.
First, the game was probably the most entertaining game in the Battle for the Bluegrass that we’ve seen for awhile. Kentucky led by 1 at halftime, 40-39, and the largest lead for either team was 5 points. Even though both teams didn’t shoot very well and play was at times sloppy, it was an intense game that was worthy of a matchup between historically blue blood programs and two programs currently ranked in the top 10. For only the second time since Calipari’s arrival in Lexington, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino was able to get the better of his rival. If anything else, the Card victory makes the basketball rivalry not quite as lopsided.
With four big out of conference games this season, the Cats had their work cutout for them. Saturday’s victory over North Carolina is sandwiched between the loss to Louisville and the loss at home to UCLA earlier in December. With Kansas still looming in January, Coach Cal and company still have a chance to finish 2-2 in those four games and have a healthy seeding resume heading into NCAA tournament play. The Cats still have a shot at a 1 seed, but it’s going to take beating the Jayhawks and only dropping one or two conference games. That top seed line is still available, but the Cats are going to have to fix some things moving forward.
In his post game comments, John Calipari said the word “discipline” or some variation at least 15 times. He blamed the loss solely on the lack of discipline the Cats had against the Cards. He questioned the shot selection of his young team, notably Malik Monk’s 1-9 from three point range and De’Aaron Fox settling for long jumpers. After blistering shooting vs. UNC, the Cats shot 5-22 (22.7%) from three point range, 23-58 (39.7%) overall and 19-29 (65.5%) from the free throw line. That’s a lot of points to leave on the table. Offensively, if the Cats aren’t getting out in transition, the offense can get stagnant, especially against a defense as tough as Louisville’s.
The good news is the Cats 2 losses on the season are to two very good teams. Both UCLA and Louisville figure to make noise come March. In typical Calipari fashion, Cal reminded reporters after the game that it’s just December 21 and this team has time to get better. And I believe they will. Four Final Four or better finishes in his first 7 seasons as Wildcat head coach proves that Cal knows how to mold a young team and get them to improve individually and collectively. We’ve seen the flashes: Monk’s 47 points; Fox’s triple-double; Bam Adebayo’s highlight-worthy dunks. It’s a matter of getting all the pieces of the puzzle to fit.
The Cardinal fans filled the Yum Center and provided a fantastic college basketball atmosphere. It was a great game played by two really, really good teams. And because I know how the NCAA works (*see 2012, 2014), this may not be the last time the teams meet this season.