Two weeks ago, a growing number of the Big Blue Nation openly wondered if the state of the University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball program was broken. An overtime loss to Seton Hall and a 34-point drubbing by Duke on the season’s opening night with some uninspiring wins had people convinced that the college basketball world had passed UK head coach John Calipari by. A number of the BBN dreaded the last two nonconference games against North Carolina and arch-rival Louisville, a fair number of folks assuming the Cats would be 0-2. But a funny thing happened: The Wildcats defeated the Tar Heels 80-72 in Chicago and then journeyed to the Yum Center and defeated the Cardinals 71-58.
On Saturday afternoon in Louisville, the Wildcats defeated the Cardinals for the second year in a row, putting Coach Cal’s Kentucky record against UL at a robust 9-2. The Cats won the same way they won against UNC a week prior. Kentucky built a solid lead in the first half and then answered every single run in the second half. The Tar Heels got no closer than six in the second half and the Cardinals could only pull to within 9. It wasn’t the prettiest game against Louisville and, let’s be honest, most of the games between UK and UL aren’t visually pleasing. But the Wildcats showed the toughness and determination that had been missing… until two weeks ago.
In his postgame press conference, Calipari talked about “the process” and how fans should be used to the way his teams go. Sure, it was typical Coach Cal Speak, but there’s a lot of truth to it. Ten years into his run here and it’s clear that losses in November and December don’t bother Cal as he stays focused on his deep NCAA tournament runs. Agree or not, that’s how Calipari has built the program and that’s how Kentucky has enjoyed a lot of postseason success during his tenure. There’s still a lot of basketball left to be played, including the entire SEC schedule, but this 2018-19 team is showing signs of turning the corner and playing up to their lofty expectations.
Tyler Herro led all scorers with 24 points, shooting 10-13 from the floor and a ridiculous 4-6 from three-point range. Keldon Johnson had 15 points and Ashton Hagans had 11. PJ Washington, who flirted with a triple-double against UNC, had 5 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 assists. Even with Reid Travis going for a modest 9 points and 4 rebounds, the Cats outrebounded the Cards (34-33), led the Cards in assists (11-7), won the turnover battle (12 for UL, 9 for UK), had more blocks (8-2) and more steals (9-5). Kentucky won by just 13 points, but the Wildcats lead for over 36 minutes and the game was a double-digit lead for most of the second half and was never really in doubt.
With the win, Kentucky is now 36-16 all-time against Louisville. Kentucky is 13-9 IN Louisville, including 3-2 at the YUM! Center. Clearly, the rivalry is tilted in the Wildcats’ favor. New UL head coach Chris Mack has Card fans excited. The Red-clad folks are ready to move forward in a different direction after the last few years of turmoil. The easy money would be on Mack being able to do that, to return the Cardinals to the ranks of the college basketball elite. If he truly wants to make his mark, he should strive to just be .500 against Kentucky. Hall of Famers Denny Crum (7-13) and Rick Pitino (6-12) won NCAA titles and played in Final Fours for Louisville, but neither could master the Cats. Although to be fair, Crum won the initial 1983 Dream Game in the NCAA tournament and his best teams did not play the Cats once the rivalry was renewed.
The Wildcat team the BBN thought they were getting at the beginning of the season appears to have shown up the last few weeks. If Coach Cal and his guys can continue making improvements then there’s no reason for the Big Blue Bandwagon to lose anybody else. Just like Kentucky beating Louisville, the Wildcats getting markedly better from December going forward is just a given.