My column in Sunday’s paper is more narrow in scope — when you have six people covering a game, you tend to divide things up, and I wrote about the toughness that U of L brought into the game, which is something we haven’t seen from the Cards yet this season. (I know, Samardo Samuels isn’t exactly a shining example of that, but as a whole, U of L out-rebounded a much bigger UK team and, though U of L fans probably don’t want to acknowledge it, the Cards gave as good as they got in the rugby scrum that the game became). Anyway, my more general thoughts on what transpired in Rupp Arena this afternoon.
THE FAMOUS FOREARM: The DeMarcus Cousins shot on Jared Swopshire happened right in front of me. Watching it live, I had no doubt that it was intentional. It came after the whistle and continued after the whistle. I also had no problem with none of the players being ejected. Especially in the first minute of the game. The luckiest guy not to be tossed in that whole exchange was Reginald Delk, and here’s why. Delk was not involved in the play. He came from outside to take a shot at Cousins (yes, defending a teammate), and when you do that, you’re risking ejection. If the refs tossed one player in that situation, they had to toss the other. I thought, in the end, they were right to toss neither. I do think, even though Cousins’ forearm was intentional (look at the photo above — he was up off his knees, on his feet pushing down) that guys get some leeway when they’re rolling around on the ground like that. But Cousins’ assertion that he was “just going after the ball,” from the replay, clearly is not correct.
Regardless, there were plenty of body shots delivered by both sides throughout this game, which was officiated inconsistently, at best. I thought it was pretty clear that U of L came in with the attitude that it would not be pushed around, and for the most part, U of L was not.
U of L OFFENSE: Yes, yes, I know. What offense? Of U of L’s first 37 points, 27 came off put-backs and turnovers. That tells you that the Cardinals had no half-court offense. If Siva isn’t up to speed, and he wasn’t today, U of L has nobody who can create off the dribble against a quality opponent, and that’s a problem. Now I will say this. For whatever reason, U of L didn’t execute its motion at all in the first 15 minutes of the game, settled for jump shots, didn’t look back door, didn’t really show any desire to work the ball and be aggressive on offense against a more athletic opponent. Here’s an example. Several times, UK switched on the ball screen at the top of the key, leaving Patterson on top against a guard and Wall down low guarding Samuardo Samuels. Edgar Sosa twice failed to look into that matchup, and a third time trying to get the ball to Jennings against Wall threw a pass that Jennings couldn’t bring in. That execution is something that will have to improve over the course of the Big East season. For UK’s part, it was the best half-court defense I’ve seen from the Wildcats all season. UK deserves a great deal of credit for U of L’s offensive struggles.
COACHING: I thought Pitino dictated he game from a strategic standpoint, though I can’t honestly say he got much more out of what he had today than Calipari did, given that some players simply didn’t fire, and that the early offensive execution was so bad. I can’t give Calipari a higher grade, though, because UK had a chance to throw a real knockout punch early, but didn’t execute itself offensively. Once it got the lead, UK forgot that Patrick Patterson was on the team. The single most effective offensive weapon UK had in the game was giving Patterson the ball isolated against Swopshire. But it didn’t happen nearly enough. Patterson had made seven straight shots, but in the second half took only two shots in the first 16 minutes, while UK repeatedly went into Cousins who tried to score amid triple-teams (often successfully). Cousins’ presence in the middle means Patterson is going to have mega-opportunities on offense. Cousins needs to think about getting the ball to him in those situations. But one more note on coaching — the mark of a well-coached game is that it leaves a blueprint for how to play an opponent. UK can expect to see plenty of zone defenses moving forward — and plenty of opponents deciding to be physical with the Wildcats to see if they can negate UK’s speed in the backcourt. Pitino and the Cardinals also did the best job of anyone all season of limiting Wall’s touches in transition by denying the long outlet passes that Cousins likes to throw.
JOHN WALL: Pitino’s assessment of Wall’s game was right on. Wall wasn’t having a great game, but never forced the issue, and in the game’s single most important sequence — after U of L took a 42-41 lead — it was Wall who scored the next six points and regained the momentum for UK. At one point in the first half, with UK leading by 13, I thought if Wall simply could shake himself free for a couple of baskets, the game would be over. U of L deserves credit for not letting that happen, and perhaps UK needed to do a few things differently to have that happen in that situation. It was worth, I thought, Calipari calling a couple of set plays to see if he couldn’t get a knockout punch thrown.
THE PHYSICAL PLAY: This was not, by any stretch, a well-played basketball game. It was a perfect exhibition of modern basketball, too much macho physical stuff and not enough basketball execution. Both teams engaged in it. U of L came out jawing from the pregame warm-ups. U of L’s players bumped UK players on the way to the locker room. UK players pushed back. One observer in the UK tunnel told me he heard Calipari yelling at his players, urging them to take nothing off U of L. John Wall said Calipari lectured them not to get “punked.” I don’t have a problem with it, but can do without all the finger-pointing afterward of fan bases on both sides. It is all too predictable. Yes, it was a physical, rough, rivalry game. Those things happen. All the inevitable throwing about of the “thug” label is, in my estimation, weak. Because the same behavior in your own team’s uniform would be seen not as “thuggish” but “tough.” That’s just how it goes. One man’s “thug” is another’s “enforcer.” Let me guess. Cardinal fans think Cousins is a “thug.” Wildcats fans think Ellis Myles was a “thug.” This stuff is fine for fans, but should not find its way into a wider audience.
CONSEQUENCES FOR COUSINS: The problem Cousins faces now, however, that his shot to Swopshire has been seen via replay around the nation (unfortunately, at 1:20 a.m., I’ve yet to see that replay — job to do, etc.), is that his margin for error will grow more narrow. Refs are going to be watching him more closely, and the next time he crosses the line, he probably will be more likely to get the hook because of what happened today. UK just better hope that doesn’t happen to be in an NCAA Tournament game.
BEST FOR BOTH WORLDS: Beleive it or not, I thought as rough as today’s game was, and as little fun as it was to watch, it was absolutely the best thing that could have happened for either team. UK had a team try to push it around, saw a different look defensively than it has seen all season (U of L’s zone pushed out farther than any UK had faced), and was challenged by falling b
ehind in the final 10 minutes at home. The Wildcats — led by their freshmen, interestingly — from that point did what they were supposed to do. They’ll be better for it, and for having been put through this kind of game.
U of L, meanwhile, needed to assert itself physically before the real Big East Conference tests began, and it did, for the most part. The team rebounding was the best U of L has turned in all season. Offensive problems notwithstanding, U of L showed the kind of toughness and perseverance that it is going to have to show to win games in the Big East this season. I had questions coming in over whether Reginald Delk and Jared Swopshire could compete in this game at all. They did — though they didn’t get the better of more talented competition. Instead of letting UK get onto the racetrack, U of L kept the Wildcats between the ropes of a ring, and though they didn’t win, they gave themselves a chance to win. At some point, the Cardinals are going to have to combine making perimter shots with the kind of defensive toughness they showed today.
DARK CLOUDS: A couple of problems emerged for both teams. For UK, Darius Miller was a non-factor. The rotation got much, much shorter when the game got serious, and Calipari noted afterward that he rode the five players he could count on (Patterson, Cousins, Harris, Bledsoe and Wall) too hard. They were gassed at the end (evidence — Patterson’s missed dunk). UK needs more from Miller than it got today. Calipari is right — when Miller is good, it gives UK a different gear offensively. U of L’s problems are pretty obvious — it needs more in the paint from Samardo Samuels, more toughness on the offensive end, more of a presence on the defensive end. But it also needs more from Terrence Jennings, who simply didn’t get himself into the game enough today and wasn’t enough of a factor when he did get in. And, again, the lack of dribble penetration is a killer for the U of L offense. Jerry Smith is competing hard, but he needs to find the range for U of L to accomplish what it wants to accomplish in the Big East.
BOTTOM LINE: UK is very good. The Wildcats are better than Louisville. They are better than anyone in the SEC. They weren’t better today than Kansas. They need more tests like they got today. The goal isn’t necessarily just an SEC championship. They’ve got to find a way to get to where Kansas is while doing it against less-than-stellar competition. The good news for UK is that it has more upside than Kansas. It’s just tough to develop that upside if you’re not being pushed. U of L will be pushed a great deal in the Big East. I have a hard time seeing the Cardinals finish as high as they were picked — fourth. But today I saw sparks of the kind of toughness that will be required to do that.