One of the most intriguing rivalries in college hoops took place on Saturday, as Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals traveled to the ever-raucous Rupp Arena to take on John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats. Defeated by Georgetown earlier in the week, the Cards entered the day facing the possibility of back-to-back losses after opening the season with a 12-0 record. And with oodles of jorts, the always-passionate Ashley Judd and Jay-Z peppered throughout the crowd, high noon at Lexington was the place to spend the final day of the 2011.
Obviously prepared to halt a Xavier-Cincinnati type of incident before it materialized, refs immediately set the tone of a tightly-officiated game by calling exactly 10 fouls before the game's first media timeout. Louisville freshman forward Chane Behanan felt the brunt of the whistle, and after picking up a technical was forced to the bench for a prolonged absence. Behanan's stay on the sideline allowed the Wildcats, specifically Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, to lay feast to the glass, as Kentucky opened up a lead that it would both comfortably and uncomfortably paw at throughout the game en route to a 69-62 victory.
Five deep thoughts after the jump...
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist might be the missing puzzle piece for a Calipari title. Sometimes it takes a special player to push an otherwise extremely talented basketball team to the pinnacle of the sport. From everything we've seen, Kidd-Gilchrist is that player. You could search endlessly from coast to coast and not find a more polished, more versatile freshman in America right now. The advanced basketball IQ, the nonstop motor, the max effort level - it's all there. Most of the characteristics we associate with older, more experience players are very much present in MKD's makeup, and every time he steps on the floor it seems like NBA scouts are essentially coerced to add yet another check mark in his 'long-term potential' column. Today's 24-point, 19-rebound performance literally sealed the deal: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a bonafide star.
- Louisville needs to lay off the three-pointers. Going 4-for-18 from behind the arc in a rivalry game of this nature isn't going to cut it. Nearly all of Louisville's attempts from deep were rushed, and shooters rarely appeared comfortable releasing the ball. With Kyle Kuric and Russ Smith as the only viable threats from the perimeter, it's inevitable that the Cards will have a few nights like this during Big East play, and that's a pretty big issue. Point man Peyton Siva is clearly the poster boy for Louisville's shot selection at the moment, and the 6'0 junior has now bricked 12 consecutive threes dating back to the Memphis game. Siva's continued willingness to toss up shots (0-for-4 today), even when he's unquestionably a weak shooter, further compounds Louisville's problem. It's not a good sign when it's still December and we have already come to expect an 0-for-3 outside shooting game from Louisville's starting point guard, every single game.
- Doron Lamb belongs, and will flourish, in Kentucky's No. 1 scoring role. It wasn't a brilliant game for Lamb on Saturday, but the sophomore minimized his four turnovers and errant shooting (1-of-7 FGs) by drawing contact and getting to the free throw line nine times. And really, that's the truest sign of a self-aware basketball player: When his shot didn't fall, he still managed to provide something positive by being aggressive and initiating contact. On a team where the bench literally oozes talent and shots are often hard to come by, a performance like today is a tell-tale sign that Lamb is fully capable of leading this squad in scoring and shot attempts going forward. From an efficiency standpoint, Lamb's 49.1% mark from deep and 58.9 eFG% suggest that he should probably be flinging shots at the rim almost every time he touches the ball. But his 22.4% shot percentage right now is still a tad low for a player operating at such a high efficiency level. The thing is, Kentucky doesn't need Lamb to be anything more than what he provides currently, but tossing him an extra 2-3 shots per game might help prepare him for the go-to clutch shooting role he's almost assuredly going to fill in March.
- Russ Smith should be allowed to wear a Superman cape for the foreseeable future. While his teammates are busy screwing around with turnovers, silly fouls and missed shots, Russ Smith has grabbed the reigns as the most consistent offensive presence on Louisville's roster. The sophomore dropped 30 points this afternoon on 10-of-20 shooting in the biggest performance of his career, marking the third time in the last five games where he's paced the Cards in scoring. Smith played just 96 minutes total as a freshman, but has elevated himself into a high energy sixth man role in his second year in Pitino's system. Smith's low shooting percentages at the moment are not really indicative of his ability to impact a game as a high volume shooter, but it's entirely possible that his most effective role isn't located in the starting lineup. While the play of Siva remains a massive x-factor, uncovering a proven scorer in Smith's mold really bodes well for this offensively-strapped team going forward.
- Anthony Davis making 12-for-13 from the foul line is dreadfully scary. Davis entered the day hitting less than 60% of his free throws, and despite a solid form for a big man, trips to the charity stripe have been one of the few ways to stop him from scoring this season. So a dominant performance like this might just be the type of confidence builder that turns a timid-for-contact 58.7% shooter into a body-controlled 70% one over the season's remaining games. Keep in mind that Davis attempted exactly four field goals this afternoon and still churned out an 18-10-6 line. That's almost unfathomable for a player who receives so many offensive gifts in the form of alley-oops with regularity. Above all, a high free throw output like this shows that Davis is finally starting to figure things out as a collegiate big man. Considering we're talking about a kid who was already a national player of the year candidate and top five NBA draft pick, the prospect of such an improvement is a nightmare for opponents.