Kentucky v Louisville

Louisville’s run at back-to-back ends at the hands of rival Kentucky


INDIANAPOLIS — Entering the 2014 NCAA Tournament many looked at the Midwest Regional as the bracket’s toughest challenge.

Unbeaten No. 1 seed Wichita State, No. 2 seed Michigan and No. 4 seed Louisville — the defending champion — all made the Final Four last year and talented No. 3 seed Duke and No. 8 seed Kentucky had enough firepower to make things interesting.

And that doesn’t even include No. 11 seed Tennessee, the team peaking at the right time of the season behind a talented inside-outside combination.

So as Louisville stared at that Midwest Regional as the trendy pick to make the Final Four, many wondered if they could get through what was looking similar to the World Cup’s “Group of Death.”

The Cardinals made it through the first two rounds unscathed but a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 8 seed Kentucky was a game that everyone in America wanted to see. Unfortunately, it didn’t go the way Louisville wanted it to go, as they fell to the rival Wildcats, 74-69, on Friday night to end its run of back-to-back Final Fours.

In the postgame locker room, a sullen Cardinals team didn’t blame anybody but themselves for the loss. The tears streaming down the faces of many of the players was noticeable. Chris Jones turned and faced a corner, unable to address the media as he held his face in his hands. Most players barely spoke above a whisper when addressing the media.

“I’m getting over it. As a man you have to move on from it,” senior guard Russ Smith said. “It sucks but there’s only 13 champions at the end of the year. Somebody has to lose, not everybody can win. We were among the last 16 teams and came up short.”

The Cardinals will stare in the mirror for a long time when they look back at Friday’s loss to Kentucky. Louisville led by seven with under five minutes left and Willie Cauley-Stein (ankle) and James Young (fouled out) were unable to return for Kentucky.

The champs had the upstart contender on the ropes and couldn’t finish them off.

“(I) told them before the game, you’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re going to taste blood. You’re going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

Soon everything began to unravel as Kentucky continued to fight until the final whistle. Despite never leading since a 2-0 advantage in the game’s opening minute, the Wildcats took a 70-68 lead on Aaron Harrison’s go-ahead three-pointer with 39 seconds left. Kentucky led for 65 total seconds, but they’re the ones that will advance to face No. 2 seed Michigan in Sunday’s Elite 8.

“We had a chance to control the game. We didn’t. I didn’t,” Smith said. “I’ve got to be a man about that. And you have to respect the opponent you were playing against; they did a good job. Other than that, I just have to take it.”

Rebounding and free throws were the major difference in the game on Friday. Louisville went 13-for-23 from the free throw line while Kentucky went 22-for-27. The Wildcats held a 37-29 rebounding edge, which led to an 18-10 advantage in second-chance points.

“They out-rebounded us and we made a lot of mistakes down the stretch that we didn’t need to make,” Louisville freshman guard Terry Rozier said. “They beat us to the glass a lot.”

The magical two-year Final Four run is over for Louisville — and with it, the talk of a potential dynasty. But head coach Rick Pitino downplayed any talk of legacy after the game and tried to focus on the present.

“We try to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat. We’re going to be very gracious in this defeat because we’ve had a lot of celebrations, and it’s the end of an era for us, for a lot of us. So it’s something that we’re certainly going to miss,” Pitino said.

Losing against a rival like Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament might mean a lot to some players, but for Smith, his college career comes to an end after winning multiple conference titles and last year’s NCAA title. As much as this loss will sting, Smith, Luke Hancock and the rest of Louisville will have to move on.

“I don’t hold losses in, I don’t hold grudges, I don’t hate anybody, I don’t have a rival,” Smith said. “I’m a positive person and I’ll move on. At the end of the day, this was a loss for the rivalry of Louisville (and Kentucky). And I just empathize with the fans. I wish I could have given them the win. I’m so sorry. (I) could have done it for them; or for me. We lost to a great team. And I have that much respect for them. It’s just another loss for me and I have to move on.”

It might take Louisville awhile to move on from this loss, but the Cardinals had a tremendous three-year run that included a Final Four in 2012, a national title in 2013 and conference championships in two different leagues — the Big East and the American.

Next year, Louisville will move on to the ACC and Pitino will have to begin a new era after losing Smith, Hancock and senior Stephan Van Treese and potentially sophomore Montrezl Harrell to the NBA.

​”We’ve lost Gorgui, Peyton, and now we’re probably going to lose Russ, Luke, Montrezl, and VT. It’s the end of an era. And I as a coach certainly appreciate all their efforts,” Pitino said.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.