LEXINGTON, Ky. — There was something missing on this occasion from the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry. Specifically: the rivalry. This was a basketball game. It was a big basketball game, because both of the teams featured very good players and a capacity crowd filled Rupp Arena and lots of people presumably watched on television, even though it was played on a Friday afternoon.
But that’s all it was.
Indeed, this 90-61 romp by the Wildcats was the first time UK vs. UL was played without Rick Pitino on the Louisville bench since the 2000-01 season. Certainly, Pitino’s presence on the opposite side of the Kentucky program he once coached to an NCAA title had enhanced the spectacle in previous years. His absence Friday had an impact, but this went deeper than one man.
It was impossible for either side to focus intensely on the rivalry when each had so many questions about itself.
Six days earlier, Kentucky walked into New Orleans with an “arrogance” that was “unearned” — that’s how UK coach John Calipari put it — and allowed itself to be defeated by a UCLA squad whose roster is so depleted it’ll be fortunate to be an NCAA Tournament bubble team in March. The Wildcats allowed UCLA to shoot 48 percent from the floor and hit a dozen 3-pointers. And, of course, they lost.
It was only their third game this season against a major opponent, and their second defeat. It was a performance entirely lacking in urgency, and it would endure over the Christmas holiday and percolate through the state’s sporting media and echo off the walls of the Craft Center as the Wildcats prepared for their next game.
The identity of the next opponent mattered far less than the quality of UK’s next effort.
“Definitely. We realized watching film how badly we played, and how good we can be and how much room to improve we had,” guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander told Sporting News. “We all had to make strides, and I think today we did that.”
Calipari was not going to convince his guys to play more passionately by citing the rivalry as inspiration. None of his regulars grew up in Kentucky. Only one previously faced Louisville: Wenyen Gabriel played 12 minutes in last season’s loss and scored two points.
One wonders, as well, how fierce this rivalry can claim to be when Kentucky owns a 35-16 record against the Cardinals, including 9-2 under Calipari.
The Wildcats enjoyed the energized atmosphere at Rupp that resulted from the fans’ investment in the rivalry, and that offered some residual inspiration, but this performance resulted primarily from their understanding that anything less produce another UCLAish result.
“Today, we saw what we really are about,” Wildcats point guard Quade Green told SN. “We had to come in and lock up and make proper plays and hit shots. That’s all it was.”
With four 3-pointers and 13 points, Green was one of four Kentucky players who scored in double figures. UK’s other playmaker, Gilgeous-Alexander scored 24 points and was effective playing in tandem with Green. The Wildcats attacked Louisville with a running game that savaged the Cards’ transition defense, no one benefiting more from that approach than wing Hamidou Diallo, who scored 14. Gradually finding a comfortable role, forward PJ Washington produced his third strong game in the past four, scoring 16 and getting 7 rebounds.,
“I said today before the game: We’re no longer freshmen,” Calipari said. “We’re 10 games in, 11 games in, we are not freshmen. And the other thing I said: We’ve got to start smashing people.”
Calipari said he would not trade his Wildcats for any team, which is the sort of thing a father might say of his own children. There are teams with better accomplishments and more emphatic talent and many with greater experience, though.
What Kentucky has is depth. This can be an overrated commodity in college basketball because no one is allowed to field more than five players at a time. However, if everyone involved embraces what that depth can provide — flexibility, energy, strategic variety — it can be useful.
In UK’s case, though, this extends to each player understanding that circumstance might limit his own impact on a given night.
With the two-playmaker lineup performing so well and Washington giving the Cats so much on the inside, top scorer Kevin Knox scored only three points in the first half, eight for the game and played 17 minutes. If he deals with this by emerging against Georgia in Sunday’s Southeastern Conference opener, Kentucky can become a significant team. If it’s a problem, it becomes one more obstacle for a group of players lacking the individual firepower or institutional knowledge to overcome too many.
“Personally, the rivalry, I didn’t really think too much about it,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I just wanted to come out here and give a great effort. And we got to do that today.”