No. 16 Kentucky lands largest win over Louisville since Pitino’s first season with Cards

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It was over before the first TV timeout of the second half.

Kentucky used a 36-16 surge to close the first half and opened the second half on a 26-9 run, opening up a lead that climbed as high as 32 points as the No. 16 Wildcats cruised to their most impressive win of the season, humiliating a beaten-down Louisville team with a 90-61 win.

The last time the Wildcats won by more than 20 points in this rivalry came back in 2001, exactly 16 years ago to the day, when the Cardinals lost 82-62 to No. 6 Kentucky in Rick Pitino’s first season as Louisville head coach and his first trip back to Rupp Arena since leaving Kentucky for the Boston Celtics.

Here are four things we can take away from that beatdown:

1. SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER PLAYED HIS BEST GAME TO DATE

I’ve been as hard on SGA this season as anyone for one, relatively simple reason: For a team that can struggle on the offensive end of the floor, he can be a limiting factor. He wasn’t on Friday afternoon, finishing with a career-high 24 points to go along with five boards, four assists and three steals off the bench. It wasn’t just in transition, either, which is where a lot of his offense has come from this year. He was beating Louisville defenders off the dribble. He showed an ability to navigate taller defenders in the paint. He was more than just a straight-line driver. He was terrific. I’m not sure how much more there is to add.

And that’s significant because he already is an excellent presence on the defensive end of the floor given his 6-foot-6 size, length and athleticism. We know what he provides on that end. It’s why he’s in the conversation as a potential first round pick whenever he does end up heading to the professional ranks. But to see him provide this kind of spark offensively? I think this raises the ceiling of what Kentucky can be for one, simple reason: Before today, I didn’t know if it was possible to close the gap between Kentucky’s best offensive five and their best defensive five.

Well … they did.

2. KENTUCKY’S DEFENSE WAS TERRIFIC

Prior to the start of the season, the big concern that everyone had with this Kentucky roster was on the offensive end of the floor. Would they be able to score efficiently enough and shoot consistently enough to be a Final Four contender? We had that concern because the general consensus was that, with the size and athleticism that John Calipari had at his disposal, he would find a way to make the Wildcats one of the nation’s best defensive teams.

That was not the case for the first six months of the season. While the Wildcats were good enough offensively – they entered Friday with the 27th-best offensive, according to KenPom, while shooting 36 percent from three and grabbing 37 percent of their own misses, all numbers that, in a vacuum, should be enough – they struggled on the defensive end of the floor. Virginia Tech put up 86 on them. UCLA put up 83. Even Vermont’s guards were able to torch the Wildcats in a game earlier this year, and it’s not like they overwhelmed the likes of Harvard, or Troy, or East Tennessee State.

On Friday, Kentucky’s defense looked like the defense we thought the Wildcats would be capable of playing this year. The Cards shot 34.8 percent from the floor, 3-for-25 from three and scored all of 0.91 points-per-possession, which included a flurry of offense once the game was decidedly in hand. Some of that, however, might have been due to Louisville being #notgood, but we’ll get to that in a second.

3. WILL LOUISVILLE MAKE THE NCAA TOURNAMENT?

This is a legitimate question that needs to be asked at this point. The Cardinals finished non-conference play at 10-3, and none of their losses are all that bad – at Purdue, at Kentucky, Seton Hall at home. All three of those teams have legitimate Final Four upside.

It is concerning that their best win in the non-conference came against a six-loss Indiana team that has been beaten at home by a combined 41 points by Fort Wayne and Indiana State, but what’s more concerning is that this Louisville team just does not look like they are good enough to collect the wins that they need to collect in order to put together a profile strong enough to get a tournament bid in the ACC.

Yes, this is recency bias rearing up, but you tell me, Louisville fans: Are you confident in your team’s ability to nick a win off of, say, Duke, or North Carolina, or Miami? What about Notre Dame? Or even someone like an 11-1 Clemson team?

4. ALL THIS SHOULD GO TO SHOW YOU JUST HOW GOOD OF A COACH RICK PITINO IS

Here’s something crazy that I remembered today: In the first iteration of the 2017-18 Preseason Top 25, the one that we released on the night of the national title game, when Donovan Mitchell was returning to school, Miles Bridges seemed like a one-and-done player and Marvin Bagley III was thinking about junior prom, the Cardinals were No. 1.

Let me repeat: Nine months ago, I thought Louisville would be the best team in college basketball this season.

Yes, losing a potential Rookie of the Year in the NBA changes a lot of things, but the Cardinals were still the No. 16 team in the preseason AP Poll even after everything they’ve gone through in the last two months. They still have players like Quentin Snider, Deng Adel, Anas Mahmoud, Ray Spalding and V.J. King, guys that were expected to play a major role regardless of who was their head coach.

Padgett was put into an impossible position and has performed about as well as you could have asked him to.

So maybe that should shed some light on why we keep referring to Pitino as one of the best to ever coach the game of basketball.