Kentucky Basketball: The Cats came up short against rival Louisville, learning lessons in defense, rebounding, shot selection, free throws and more. But this loss will make this young team better
Dec 21, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals forward Jaylen Johnson (10) goes up for a dunk against Kentucky Wildcats guard De
Kentucky came up short during its first true road test of the season Wednesday, and there were a lot of issues exposed during the renewal of what is arguably the most intense, heated rivalry in all of basketball.
Defensive breakdowns lead to easy buckets, failure to rebound translated to easy put back shots, settling for contested jump shots stifled offensive possessions and missed opportunities abounded late in the game, when the pressure ramped as a hostile crowd helped will their team to the win. There’s a lot to break down and direct. But for Kentucky coach John Calipari, it all boiled down to one simple missing characteristic – discipline.
“The biggest thing tonight is we didn’t have discipline,” Calipari said.
“We had some mental errors toward the beginning of the game, and then we missed a big rebound at the end of the game where they made a layup,” added De’Aaron Fox said, referencing Jaylen Johnson’s back-breaking rebound and put-back with 16 seconds left. “We had some small things that turned out to be big problems at the end.”
That one play was emblematic of the bigger problems Kentucky had all night versus the Cards. Kentucky defended Donovan Mitchell well enough, as he missed a jumper with 19 seconds remaining, only to give up an offensive rebound to Johnson, who’s put-back extended Louisville’s lead to 71-67 with only 16 seconds remaining.
However, that one play alone does not tell the full story. Kentucky struggled with several areas of fundamental basketball, including rebounding, defending the high pick-and-roll, free throw shooting and overall shot selection. Although the turnover margin wasn’t horrible, Louisville was successful in speeding up Kentucky’s guards with its pressure defense, disrupting the Cats’ rhythm.
Fortunately, those are all, for the most part, fixable offenses. Louisville is big, and they’re going to get their share of rebounds, a good lesson for a Kentucky team liable to face more teams with size come March. The Cards are excellent on-ball defenders, which is great preparation for tournament basketball. And the jumpers didn’t fall very much for Kentucky, a great reminder of the need and advantage this young team has in the ability to play through Bam Adebayo.
But maybe the greatest takeaway for a team that started four freshman and one sophomore is the environment itself.
“It was good for us to have a game like this,” Fox said. “First true road game. There’s not too many environments like this in the country, especially with this rivalry we have. We probably won’t go into another arena like this one, even in the tournament. It was good. I’m not going to say it was a good loss for us, but it was good to have this game as our first road game.”
“It’s a tough environment,” Calipari added. “This is – they have to go through these kind of growing pains, and then I’ve gotta be able to see what I have to do as a coach. Unless you’re doing this kind of stuff – the North Carolina game, the Michigan State game, the Kansas game coming up, the game at Mississippi coming up. Those are – that’s why we do this. And we’re playing young guys and it’s hard. It’s hard.”
Few teams in the country have played a schedule quite like Kentucky’s, with neutral-site games against the likes of Michigan State and North Carolina and a home game against UCLA. Throw in this first road test against another top-10 team, and its another good litmus test for what it to come. And while we “failed” this test, playing against Louisville, in the Yum! Center, in front of that crowd, which was bonkers most of the game, could play bigger dividends down the road – the road to the Final 4.
“On the 21st of December we’re not good enough to go on an opponent’s court that’s a top-10 team and win,” Calipari said. “We’re not. They’re better than us right now. December 21st. And that’s what we wanted to see.
“We’re not ready to go on an opponent’s court that’s a top-10 team and win,” Calipari added. “We’re just not. And thank God it’s December 21st. I’ve got a lot of time.”