We are just three weeks removed from Kentucky losing to Seton Hall in overtime in Madison Square Garden — a result that dropped Kentucky out of the top 25 — and we are already back to viewing this team through the lens of being a title threat.
That’s what happens when, over the course of three weekends, you embarrass Utah, control a game against North Carolina and go into your archrival’s building and smack them around. The latter is precisely what happened on Saturday afternoon, as No. 16 Kentucky knocked off Louisville in the Yum! Center, 71-58, in a game that the Wildcats controlled throughout.
Kentucky jumped out to an early 31-19 lead, took a somewhat-surprising 35-27 lead into the break and were never truly threatened in the second half.
Here are three things that we learned from this game:
1. IT WAS TYLER HERRO’S TURN TO CATCH FIRE
Keldon Johnson was the guy that snapped Kentucky out of their funk. He had 24 points in the win over Utah, hitting the first five threes that he attempted while making 6-of-7 from beyond the arc in the win over the Utes. He followed that up with an impressive 21-point outing against the Tar Heels.
On Saturday, it was Tyler Herro’s turn to catch fire. A highly-regarded shooter out of Wisconsin, Herro was the star of Kentucky’s trip to the Bahamas yet he had yet to truly have a breakout performance this season; entering Saturday, he was shooting just 29.3 percent from beyond the arc. That all changed against the Cardinals, however, as Herro scored 12 points in the first 13 minutes and finished with 24 on the night, going 10-for-13 from the floor and 4-for-6 from three.
If Herro turns into a weapon from the perimeter it changes what Kentucky can be on the offensive end of the floor. Not only does his perimeter shooting create space, but it forces defenses to make decisions. Do you double the post when Reid Travis or P.J. Washington get a touch? Do you help off of Keldon Johnson? Who do you put your best perimeter defender on?
But mostly, having another player on the floor that can pop off for 20 on any given night just makes the Wildcats that much more dangerous. Hopefully, for Kentucky fans, this is a sign of things to come and not just a blip on the radar.
2. ASHTON HAGANS IS KENTUCKY’S ENGINE
Against North Carolina, Hagans showed everything that he can be on the defensive side of the ball, eliminating Coby White and finishing with eight steals and three blocks. It wasn’t quite the same against Louisville, but Hagans was +14 in his 24 minutes and was as much of a pest defensively as ever.
He also was at his very best on the offensive end of the floor, scoring 10 of his 11 points in the second half while chipping in with three assists. He made three big buckets down the stretch to help salt the game away, which is relevant for his confidence as much as anything. Hagans is not known for being a guy you need to worry about with the ball in his hands.
Kentucky just seems to have a different level of fight when he is on the floor. There’s a certain competitiveness and toughness he brings that can’t be taught, and it sets the tone for a program that is finding their groove on that end of the floor. In their last two games, Kentucky has allowed 0.89 points-per-possession.
2a. P.J. WASHINGTON NEEDS A SHOUTOUT, TOO
Hagans is the easiest guy to notice because of the work he does at the point, but Washington was really good in taking Jordan Nwora out of his game. Nwora is by far the most dangerous scorer on Louisville’s roster, and while he got his 17 points, it took him 17 shots to get there on a night were he never really seemed to get into a rhythm. This game probably plays out different is Nwora knocks down a couple threes early in the game.
3. LOUISVILLE’S LACK OF TALENT WAS ON DISPLAY
The talent disparity between these two programs was painfully obvious on Saturday afternoon. Frankly, it’s a credit to Louisville’s coaching staff and the team’s execution that this game only ended up being a 13 point loss. They could have been down 15 at the half and changed defenses just enough in the second half to stay within striking distance.
Frankly, that coaching staff and that execution is part of the reason I’m not all that worried about Louisville this season. The program had zero expectation heading into the year. An NCAA tournament berth would be a win, and I think they get to the dance.
But the idea that this team could end up being something more is probably long gone. Outside of Nwora, there really isn’t anything here that is going to worry someone. They’ll be a tough out because they defend, but that’s about it.