Kentucky basketball missed a season-changing win at No. 4 Louisville by a narrow 80-77 margin Saturday night. Just because the Wildcats’ valiant comeback fell short, though, doesn’t mean John Calipari won’t have plenty of positives to take away from this game.
UK rallied from 17 down in the second half with an approach that had to have looked familiar to the coach on the opposing sideline. After all, three-pointers (like the ones forward Kyle Wiltjer started nailing) have been a big part of Rick Pitino’s winning strategy at Louisville.
So has high-pressure defense (like the kind embattled sophomore transfer Ryan Harrow started playing).
Perhaps the most important lesson Kentucky can learn from Saturday's opponent, though, is how to play a full 40-minute game. The ‘Cats didn’t use their press in the first half, and hit just three of their 10 three-point buckets in the first 20 minutes.
Louisville, in contrast, pressed at almost every opportunity and got the most out of its top players. Despite heavy minutes and second-half foul trouble, Russ Smith (21 points in 30 minutes), Peyton Siva (19 points in 31 minutes) and Gorgui Dieng (six points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes)—all veterans of last season's Final Four run—closed out the game strong. Of the three, only Siva eventually fouled out.
As conference play looms, the Wildcats must start taking similar advantage of their stars. With two imposing shot-blockers in Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, UK can afford to apply more perimeter pressure than it’s been doing in the early part of its games.
The Wildcats’ paired centers combined for five blocks against the Cards, and that wasn’t even an exceptional performance for them.
By the same token, a team whose top three scorers are combining to shoot .413 from long range can afford to take a few more three-pointers. The risk of wasted possessions becomes less of a concern with a starting lineup that grabbed 11 offensive rebounds against a tough Cards frontcourt.
It’s not a huge surprise that John Calipari has preferred to hold his team to a slower pace, given that he really only uses seven players. However, against elite opponents, Kentucky has to learn to play harder over the entire game. Its current strategy of saving its energy for a second-half comeback that falls short (as against Duke earlier in the year, not to mention on Saturday) is no longer an option.
Calipari’s team has a lot of the spectacular plays down pat, especially when Nerlens Noel has a chance for a swat or a slam. The youngsters just need to get a handle on some of the more fundamental areas of the game. Conditioning, avoiding turnovers and not shooting 11-of-23 from the free-throw line would all be good places to start.
If they have any questions on how to pull it off, the guys in the white jerseys could probably give them a few pointers.