It’s fair to say that losing to Louisville is the worst. Even in this rivalry that has recently been dominated by the Big Blue (#L1C4 does stand for Louisville 1, Calipari 4), losing just one game to the Dirty Birds can be a bit difficult to stomach. I talked my friend Lee Ann this afternoon and she said it best. “I couldn’t even watch the game yesterday with the sound on because I hate to hear their fans cheer.” I know exactly what she means. While I have no problem seeing the happiness on players that I respect such as Peyton Siva or enjoying the heartwarming story of the Dieng family visit, watching the obnoxious segment of the Louisville fan base celebrate is akin to being stuck on Election Night at the opposing candidate’s victory party. It is a bit too much to handle.
But once we get passed that feeling of stomach flu, there are a number of positive signs for Kentucky coming out of Saturday’s game. The Cats played well for 30 of the game’s 40 minutes (the last five minutes of the first half and first five of the second half withstanding), and showcased a grit in coming back that we did not necessarily see on the horizon. Rick Pitino probably put it the best when he said afterwards that two weeks ago, Kentucky “didn’t look like a very good team,” but now they are a contender. Credit goes to Camp Cal and a team willing to work to get better.
So with that in mind, let’s look at the players and team going forward and what we learned from yesterday:
Ryan Harrow was excellent yesterday. In fact, I can quibble with virtually no part of his performance in a game that just four weeks ago, it seemed he would be a non-factor. Harrow played 37 minutes against the best defensive team in America and had zero turnovers. That is virtually impossible, but Harrow did it, all the while showing none of the timidness that has accompanied his play all season. When Harrow was at NC State, he was known as a player who would choke on the big stage. And now at Kentucky, he played on the biggest stage and took one of the best point guards in America to essentially a draw. Harrow drove the lane, found the open man and played credible defense, all while being a stabilizing force on a team where the main stars were going MIA. If we take nothing else from the game on Saturday, we can now believe that UK has a point guard capable of making a March run. That seemed impossible just weeks ago.
Doug Gottlieb came on the post-game show with me Saturday night and agreed with my assessment that Nerlens Noel has actually become underrated nationally. What he does for UK on a nightly basis is really impressive and it is only because people compare him to the GOAT freshman that he isn’t given the credit he deserves. Noel is a stat sheet stuffer…he scores, rebounds, block shots, gets steals at an amazing rate and probably leads the team in deflections. His offensive skills need work but they are improving. If he could develop a free throw line jumper, he would make it impossible to play zone against the Cats, but besides that one deficiency, I am fairly happy with his development. Noel is a rock on a team of inconsistent players and for that, he deserves much credit.
Nothing symbols this team’s inconsistency like Archie Goodwin, who played the worst 32 minutes he has produced this season (along with the Notre Dame game), but then became a scoring machine in the last eight. I love his determination to get to the rim and his ability to score in huge bunches. His decision making is still suspect, but his intensity is not. His defense has been surprisingly lacking, showcased in part in the way Russ Smith was able to get open looks against him (although he missed many during UK’s run). However Archie is the best scorer UK has and when he is clicking, they become a VERY good offensive team. It is important that Archie play aggressive, but not out of control..and that is obviously difficult for him. However he is the one elite scorer on the team and UK will live and die by his offense all year long.
A number of fans saw Julius Mays’s game as being lacking on Saturday and to some extent they are correct. His limitations were showcased when on the court with the elite athletes from both teams, as crystallized by the late play in which he cut to the basket to get an open layup, only to have shot blocked when he couldnt sky to the rim to finish. But, Mays did a lot that is not recognized by those that only focus on offense. He is always in the right place, makes the correct pass and is a better than you would think defender (Wayne Blackshear got very little on him all night). In a perfect world, he would be this team’s sixth man, coming off the bench and playing 20 minutes while looking to hit open jumpers. But this team doesn’t have that luxury, especially when someone (Alex Poythress) is taking the night off. Mays ends up having to play 35 minutes, which is too much, mostly because he is consistent and won’t screw up. And until the elite players all hit their stride, that luxury is one that Calipari will use. With all of that said, he has to shoot better than he did Saturday, and get back to his consistency from early in the year.
There is no more frustrating player or bigger disappointment at this point than Alex Poythress. Six weeks ago he was being talked about by some NBA guys as the potential #1 overall draft pick. Saturday, he played only 3 minutes in the second half and sat the bench as Kentucky made its run back into contention in the game. He is the most physically imposing player at Kentucky since Kelenna Azubuike, but just like Kelenna, he utilizes that strength rarely. Watching the game on Saturday, you would have forgotten that he was even one of the best five players on the court. The closest thing that Louisville has to Poythress, Chane Behanan, scored 20 points and led his team to victory, while Alex sat on the bench. I love Poythress as a player. When he is at his best, he is a joy to watch and his physically imposing dunks got the name #Hutcherson from me and Josh Hopkins on the radio show. However that phrase has rarely been uttered, as Poythress has sat back and watched the game pass him by. He is costing himself money and more importantly for UK fans, he is costing this team the chance to reach its potential. It is a minor miracle that Kentucky was within three against Louisville getting nothing from him. If they are to win in March against equivalent teams, he has to reach his potential…and soon.
Leave aside the free throws…they were obviously horrible and he must improve. But outside of those six monumental bricks, Willie played his best game in a Kentucky uniform and was a revelation on Saturday. We heard he might start and when he did, one could immediately see why. He attacked the glass with reckless abandon and was a defensive force, disrupting a number of shots. He also had jaw-dropping athletic plays such as his block of a Harrell dunk attempt that was incorrectly called as a foul. The “Twin Tower” system with he and Noel still needs one of them to formulate a mid-range jumper, but on defense, it is absolutely dominating. You simply cannot get interior shots off with the two of them in the lane and the defensive force is impressive. He has to stay out of foul trouble and, yes, work on those free throws. But Willie is only getting better and he is going to be a major force this year and as the Center on a 2014 national title team next year.
He needs to get better, tougher and help in other ways besides scoring. But until that happens, Wiltjer’s three point shooting is the best offensive weapon this team has. Not only did his two open threes bring Kentucky back into the game, but the threat of his shooting allowed Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow to get lanes to drive to the basket. He made four threes and could have had a couple more late if players had seen him open for good looks. When he is open, I still think they will always go in and there is probably no better offensive sequence for UK than when a player drives to the basket and kicks to Wiltjer for an open look. He needs to rebound more (he is getting better) and get on the floor (he didn’t dive for a ball at around the three minute mark that cost UK a possession), but if UK needs a shot, he is the guy. And that is still a weapon that very few other teams possess.
The Team as a Whole
I came into the Louisville game unready to render a final judgment on this team, but pessimistic as to their potential. I leave the Louisville game thinking that the Cats can still be a contender. College basketball is weak this year and there is no dominant team that cannot be beaten. Kentucky has played the two best teams so far in the country, Duke and Louisville, and both games have gone down to the wire. Kentucky has more room for improvement than those two teams, or really any team in America. The key for this season is that Kentucky find itself in the group of 8-10 teams that have a real shot at winning a title this year. For now, that group includes Duke, UL, Indiana, Michigan, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Syracuse and Ohio State. Kentucky needs to find its way into that group. Before Saturday, I didn’t think they could. Now I think it is definitely a possibility. For that, the team and John Calipari deserve a lot of credit.
No radio show tomorrow, but we have a full day on the site. See ya then…