It was nice for Kentucky to escape with a win. Itâ€™s always nice to beat Louisville, though a two-point win is hardly determinative. Of course, in retrospect, it will look like a blowout on the UK season and in the seriesâ€™ annals.
It wasnâ€™t just a win against another nationally ranked Top 20 team. It was also the Catsâ€™ big rivalry game, with Rupp packed, emotions sky-high and tensions stretched.
The team brought its strengths, but its weaknesses showed up, too. For me, the biggest lesson was the futility of the pre-game expertise. The Courier-Journal asked all the local analysts to predict a breakdown of the game. Few got it right.
Why? Because Kentuckyâ€™s singular identity this year has been a singular lack of identity. Unpredictability. You can throw out what happened Saturday. Going forward, the pattern will be, again, that someone will disappoint, but someone else will step up. And youâ€™ll never know who that will be.
For example, one thing all the experts agreed on was that:
â€œJamal Murray will be the difference-maker.â€
â€œIt will be the Jamal Murray show.â€ After his remarkable second half against Ohio State, everyone just assumed a great repeat performance. No matter what Rick Pitino threw against the Cats, Murray would provide the answer.
Well, he did hit some monster threes. In a two-point game, every three is a monster. But Murray showed some glaring weaknesses with the ball, primarily a tendency to drive into the lane out of control and (a) get tied up, (b) miss a poor shot or (c) throw it away.
Kentucky went into the season with a three-point-guard offense. In fact, it has a one-point-guard offense, like most other teams do. Luckily, that one point guard is Tyler Ulis. No other team has one of those.
â€œItâ€™s time for Skalâ€™s breakout game.â€
It could have been important. But it didnâ€™t happen. Either Skal will add 25 pounds of muscle, including in his hands and wrists, by the start of the SEC season, or John Calipari will have to come up with another way to play him. Heâ€™s probably too strong an offensive weapon and too good a shot-blocker to leave languishing on the bench.
â€œUlis is still struggling.â€
Does his elbow hurt? Who knows? He says it doesnâ€™t. But Saturday, Ulis and his elbow came to play. He shot well. He destroyed the vaunted Pitino press. He took the wheel and drove the offense, taking â€“ and making â€“ shots when he was open. Murray couldnâ€™t handle the press. For Ulis, it was a game in the park.
â€œThe Cats will need a strong Isaiah Briscoe.â€
Turned out the Cats didnâ€™t have any Isaiah Briscoe, which in a sense helped because it minimized the number of guards who thought they could drive into the center of the Louisville defense. One guard with seven turnovers was enough.
What also helped is that it got Dominique Hawkins off the bench. Hawkins provides the same good defense as Briscoe and heâ€™s content to play off the ball, taking his shots as they come to him. They came and he did!
He was the difference-maker. Nobody predicted that.
â€œAlex Poythress will be outmanned in the middle.â€
â€œHe has just not been into it.â€ â€œMaybe heâ€™s still lacking confidence.â€
Early in the second half, the Cats went inside to Poythress on three straight possessions. Six straight points. The Cats led by 16. It reminded me of the ball going into Karl-Anthony Towns play after play in the tournament last year against both Notre Dame and Wisconsin.
Another big play was his blocking the Matz Stockman dunk attempt near the end of the first half. That was a Willie statement! An Anthony Davis moment. No just-anybody is going to come in here anymore.
It was what Kentucky has lacked all year, an inside force whoâ€™ll chew glass and spit it in your face if you dare bring the ball to the hoop.
â€œIn a close game, poor free throw shooting will sink Kentucky.â€
It was maddening to see Kentucky continue to hit just one of two or miss the front end of a one-and-one. And these were the good UK foul shooters â€“ Murray, Poythress, Hawkins, even Ulis. But in the end, Hawkins calmly sank two and, no, 64 percent foul shooting was not fatal.
So Kentucky wins its biggest game of the year, at least since Duke, and everythingâ€™s suddenly rosy going into the SEC schedule. Right?
If you believe that, you havenâ€™t been paying attention. Nothing is rosy until a team identity emerges, one that shows up every time for every game. VT