As you all know by now, Friday might have gone down as the wildest sports day on the calendar in 2017 for the Kentucky Wildcats fan-base. Admittedly, most of you have had your fill of Music City Bowl content by my esteemed KSR colleagues, so instead I figured I’d focus on the basketball win over Louisville.
Even the dumbest outsider (me) knows how important this game was, not just because of the rivalry aspect of it, but because entering a brutal SEC, Kentucky needed as many signature wins as they could get. And outside of a victory over Virginia Tech two weeks ago, they really didn’t have one.
Instead, the Wildcats needed to bounce back after that sloppy game against UCLA last Saturday and did it Friday.
Here are some thoughts on the Wildcats’ win:
Kentucky’s best work couldn’t be found in the box score
If you read my write-up following the UCLA game, you know that what I thought was especially frustrating about that loss was the effort that Kentucky put forth. The players seemed a little too high coming off that Virginia Tech win, a little too eager to hit the Christmas holiday, and it showed in their effort. In essence, it seemed like every loose ball and hustle play went the way of the Bruins, and I wrote about Tuesday morning. Apparently John Calipari agreed, since he mentioned just hours later how he needed to see “more fight” from his team. (Clearly, he’s reading my articles at KSR).
Regardless, something had to change on Friday against Louisville. And it did. Kentucky dominated on the scoreboard, not so much because they were the bigger, more talented team (although that helped), but because they dominated in all of the areas that don’t show up on the box score. They played with more energy, effort and hustle, and attacked the rim off the dribble (especially Hamidou Diallo, Shai Alexander and even P.J. Washington). They also scrapped for every 50/50 ball, which led to second chance and trips to the foul line.
You can point to a million different stats in the box score, but more than anything, it was the intangible stuff, the things you can’t measure, which helped them not only win this game, but dominate.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was…. awesome
For anyone who has read my work here at KSR or listened to my podcast (and if you haven’t been listening, catch up on old episodes by clicking here) you know that at times I have been somewhat critical of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Not so much “critical” as I have been uncertain of why John Calipari has been so willing to play Shai so many minutes. Yes, we all know the tools are there (especially on the defensive end) but it feels like Quade Green has a better feel for running the offense and better ability to get points. On this team, those two skills are invaluable.
Except here’s the thing: As I learned on Friday, apparently I’ve been wrong the whole time and Coach Cal has been right (shocking, I know) and Gilgeous-Alexander showed why Cal has been insistent on playing him big minutes. Not only was he good on Friday against Louisville, but he was the best player on the floor by a mile. He attacked the rim effortlessly, finished, drew contact and got to the foul line. He hit a couple three-pointers, and in general, just completely controlled the game the entire time he was in.
And the best part was, his 24 points came on a crazy-efficient 16 shot attempts. It wasn’t like he was forcing the offense, but let the offense come to him.
As it turns out, maybe this Coach Cal guy knows what he’s doing after all, as the broadcasters said on Friday you have to imagine that as much as Shai is playing he might get even more time going forward. The scariest part is — that like his entire team — Gilgeous-Alexander is only starting to scratch the surface of his potential. It’s scary how good he could be by March, let alone a year or two from now.
Any Louisville player or fan complaining about fouls is an idiot
And I’m not saying this as the guy who writes for the Kentucky basketball website. I’m saying it as a guy who really has no vested interest in who won or lost Friday, but instead just wanted to watch a good game. Speaking of which, I not only watched the game live, but re-watched it early Saturday morning to make sure I didn’t miss anything. And after watching and re-watching I can tell you this: Anyone complaining about the foul discrepancy is an idiot.
You know why there was such a big foul discrepancy? Because Kentucky continually attacked off the dribble, ran the fast break at every opportunity, and scrapped and clawed for every loose ball they could get their hands on, which led to second-chance opportunities on the offensive end. Do that continually from the first play of the game (when Hamidou Diallo smashed a dunk down) to the last, and you’re going to get to the line a lot.
You know what’s not going to get you to the line however? Jacking up 25 three-pointers and turning over the ball a bunch, leading to transition opportunities for the other team. Which is exactly what the Cards did. Louisville players and fans can complain all they want, but that’s why they didn’t get to the free throw line.
It had nothing to do with the officiating.
Speaking of Louisville, I don’t know what their ceiling is… which is a shame
As I watched, and re-watched this game, I couldn’t help but think one team:
Why Rick Pitino?
Why… why… why?!?!?!
Why break every rule in the NCAA rule book to get Brian Bowen?
Understand, Bowen is a nice player, but one that wouldn’t have had an overwhelming impact on this team. The simple truth is that even without Bowen, the Cards had enough talent entering the year to compete for a Final Four berth. Seriously, Quentin Snider, Deng Adel and Anas Mahmoud are all nice, veteran pieces and I really like the way Ray Spaulding (probably Louisville’s best player on Friday) and V.J. King have come along. I like the freshmen too, including Malik Williams who literally has no conscious. Frankly, Louisville needed more players like him Friday.
Unfortunately, Pitino couldn’t help himself, went after Bowen and blew up what could have been a potentially really special season. And watching Friday, I now question what the ceiling of this team is. This team was never great offensively, but seemed to quit defensively, and as I’ve repeatedly written in this article, got outhustled in every way imaginable Friday.
David Padgett is doing his absolute best, but at 32-years-old and replacing a Hall of Famer, he had no chance to get this team to reach their potential. And now, without Pitino and without much fight, I really do wonder what the ceiling for this team is. Frankly, I think they’ll be lucky to make the NCAA Tournament at all.
Back to Kentucky, which got another stellar performance from Wenyen Gabriel
I know the stat sheet might not totally indicate it, but it was another stellar performance from Wenyen Gabriel. He had just three points off the bench, but added seven rebounds and a whole bunch of energy off the bench. This coming one game after he was basically the only bright spot against UCLA (16 points, six rebounds).
Gabriel doesn’t have the talent to be a “star” on this team, but it’s never a bad thing to have a guy who will bring effort, energy and hustle off the bench. More and more, it appears as though Gabriel is going to be that guy.
The best part for the Cats yesterday? They got a huge win without a big performance from Kevin Knox
Honestly, this has to be the part that has John Calipari the happiest. Not only did the Wildcats beat their biggest rival in a game where they by 30 points at various moments, but they did it without getting much from their best player. Knox finished with just eight points overall on 2 of 8 shooting, before he eventually fouled out.
Now admittedly, Kentucky obvious wants and needs to get Knox back on track, but at the same time this is an incredibly positive sign. First off, I would ask: How much would the Wildcats have won by if he actually played well? Two, how many teams could have beaten Louisville by 29 points if their best player didn’t play well? I’m guessing not very many.
Friday showed why I was so high on Kentucky coming into the preseason
When I made my preseason picks, I was virtually the only national media member who had Kentucky in the Final Four. And many other media guys scoffed at me. “Of course you would have Kentucky in the Final Four! You write for a Kentucky site.”
Yeah, I write for a Kentucky site, but I’m also always honest with my readers. And I’ve always believed that UK has the chance to be special this season. So after yesterday, I’ve got to ask all you fancy national writers: HOW YOU LIKE THEM APPLES?
In all honesty, it was days like Friday which are the reason that I picked Kentucky to go so far in the first place. Understand that when I picked the Wildcats in October, I wasn’t focusing on the team then, what they could be by March. And what they could be is club with crazy length and athleticism (sorry for using those two buzz words), that could kill you off the dribble and suffocate you on defense if they absolutely wanted to. I honestly had no idea if they would reach their potential or not, but if there is one coach in America that could get them there it is John Calipari.
And Friday, that premonition came true. Kentucky showed America everything they’re capable of being, in one of the most emphatic wins any college basketball team has had this season. And the scary part is, it’s only December 30th, and they’ve still got another two-and-a-half months before the NCAA Tournament. Can you imagine how good they could be by March?
It’s a scary thought for teams across the country.
Especially after Kentucky dismantled its biggest rival Friday.