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Eleven Thoughts: Kentucky 73, Louisville 66

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

1. As tempting as I know it is to do, I hate when people on both sides of the rivalry try to downplay it after a loss. The fans who make it a point to say, "this game doesn't even matter" or "let's see what happens in March" are usually the same ones who are the most upset. Of course the NCAA Tournament matters more than a non-conference game in December, but let's not act like we aren't at all dejected over this. Embracing the pain just makes it better when you're on the other side.

It's just like when UK won the national title in 2012. The best thing to do was grin and bear it and hope you were able to know the same euphoria a year from then. Everyone's after the sport's top prize, and when you diminish the accomplishment one year it makes you feel a little artificial when you attempt to fully embrace the moment after your team accomplishes the same thing.

Louisville lost to Kentucky in basketball. It happened and I'm not happy about it.

2. The worst part of this loss outside of the obvious is that it really puts the pressure on Louisville to be dominant in what is going to be an extremely top-heavy American Athletic Conference.

U of L is about to enter league play with a grand total of zero quality wins. That's happened a couple of times before in the Pitino era, but there's always been a Big East loaded with top 25 teams there to turn things around. The Cards will get a couple of opportunities to make a national statement against Connecticut and Memphis (they play everyone in the conference twice), but a big-time non-conference win would have been a huge asset in cushioning the potential blow of an off night against a Houston or a South Florida. You know, because sometimes those things happen.

I still think Louisville is going to be a very good basketball team when all's said and done. Do I know that? Of course not. I have no idea how good they are right now, let alone how good they're going to be three months from now, and I don't think anyone else does either. This is a team that has absolutely crushed every opponent on their schedule besides the only two of any real subsequence. It's confusing and it's frustrating, but it's where we are right now.

3. I still can't believe this happened:

A couple of years ago we weren't sure that Russ could dunk. On Saturday, he produced what more than a few people have called the dunk of the season so far over one of the two or three best big men in college basketball.

Just when you think he's run out of ways to surprise you...

4. Speaking of Julius Randle, that young man is just as good as advertised. Every time it seemed like Louisville had seized or was about to seize momentum, he came up with a basket in the paint that was almost impossible to defend. The fact that the Cats actually pulled away after he had to leave the game was more than a little disheartening.

Randle played poorly against North Carolina and was way too timid early on in UK's loss to Michigan State, but this was sort of a coming of age game (again, before he had to sit out) for a guy whose pro potential has never been questioned.

I also have a little bit of a rivalry crush on Willie Cauley-Stein. His length is staggering and he moves incredibly well for someone that size. There were multiple times where one of Louisville's guards got in a 1-on-1 situation with WCS and felt the need to try and take advantage of it, and not once did it work out well for the Cards. He's also a seriously funny dude who would be adored if he suited up for the good guys.

5. I suppose we need to talk about this since it has become the major topic of discussion in the city...or at least the city's Internet community.

The referees did not cost Louisville this game. Let's go ahead and get that out of the way at the very beginning. The referees did not cost Louisville this game.

That said, I'm not sure why talking about officiating in any capacity has become so taboo. It is an enormous part of any basketball game, and to simply dismiss any discussion of it with "stop crying," "it shouldn't have been that close anyway" or some other modern cliché seems silly. If you're going to engage in the activity of dissecting a 40-minute basketball contest, then I'm not sure why everything is fair game other than this one pretty big thing that "doesn't need to be brought up."

I thought the officiating in the first five minutes of the game was horrendous. I did, and I don't think it's an unreasonable thing to say. You are perfectly within your rights to disagree. It's an observation just like saying I thought Randle was terrific and Kentucky's size was the difference in the game.

Things evened out once everyone settled down and eventually there were missed calls both ways - Russ walked at the end of the game, he wasn't touched on one of his and-ones, Randle charged into Chris Jones, etc. I can't agree with anyone who places blame for Saturday's final score on the shoulders of the officials, but I'm also not going to lie and say I thought there was an even whistle for 40 minutes.

For example, this is atrocious, and it kept Wayne out of the game for the rest of the half:

The guy making the call is Tony Greene, who seems to work every big Kentucky game and has been the target of BBN rage pretty consistently for the past several years. He's also a guy who's worked each of the last four regular season Louisville/Kentucky games sans the one the Cards won. Greene is pretty across the board horrible and I'd just as soon not see his face show up for one of these rivalry games ever again...or any game ever again.

Kentucky fans reading this have probably already pointed out in their minds that Louisville has often been the beneficiary of a generous whistle inside the KFC Yum Center. I am not going to argue against that claim at all. It happens, and anyone with functioning eyes and a rational mind can see it. I don't think it's any more right than UK getting calls at Rupp or Duke getting calls at Cameron or anywhere else, but it's the way it is.

At this point, I'll say it again: the referees did not cost Louisville the game. Just like they did when they pulled even with Kentucky during the Final Four game in 2012, the Cardinals didn't seem to know what to do after they took the lead at 52-51. They didn't handle the big moment well at all, and that's what cost Louisville the game.

The main reason this has become such a focal point of discussion is because Rick Pitino drew the ire of the other side by responding to a postgame question about the hostile Rupp environment by saying that he thought the officials were more affected by it than his players. He was likely referring to the opening segment of the game, where Louisville went into the under 16 timeout with a 10-5 lead that seemed like it should have been 6-8 points larger. It's so easy to roll your eyes and dismiss it as "sour grapes" or "being butthurt," but Pitino's answer - assuming he was referring to the first few minutes - isn't unfounded. U of L's players responded terrifically to the hostile Rupp Arena environment at the beginning of the game, while the officiating crew missed a handful of calls that they probably wouldn't have if they'd been working the Georgia/Colorado game.

Kentucky is 76-2 at home under John Calipari. They've also lost nine of their last 10 games away from Rupp Arena. As a Lexington media member told me several years ago, "if you want to beat us here by a few points, you're going to have to blow us out." It's something that was talked about going into the game, and it's something that will likely be turned around and talked about again when the Wildcats come to the Yum Center a year from now.

For a fourth time, the referees did not cost Louisville the game. They did, however, impact the beginning of the game in a way which warranted at least some mention. It might benefit the Cards or it might hurt the Cards, but it won't be the last time it happens this season. I'll mention it then, too.

6. It was disappointing to see Louisville respond to gut-check time with the same "chuck it up from deep" offense that they utilized in the same situation against North Carolina. Although to be fair, Chris Jones pretty much kept the Cards in the game by running the same offense for an extended stretch during the first half.

Plenty of people will point to Jones' 18 points as the biggest takeaway of the game, but there were also a number of instances that showcased Pitino's assertion that our guards don't rotate well enough on defense. This was the result:


Both Jones and Russ have put up solid offensive numbers in each of U of L's games against quality opponents, but the Cards didn't defended well enough or force enough turnovers in either of those games to win. There's your backcourt focal point heading into league play.

7. In two games against Kentucky and North Carolina, Louisville's frontcourt quartet of Montrezl Harrell, Mangok Mathiang, Stephan Van Treese and Chane Behanan has put up a total of 27 points. That's four key players combining for 27 points in 80 minutes. That's not going to get it done.

When Trez was sent to the bench with two fouls in the first half, U of L needed to finally see the reemergence of national championship game Chane Behanan (or West Coast regional MVP Chane Behanan). Instead, Chane produced zero points, seven rebounds and three turnovers in 20 minutes. He's playing hard, no one can question that, but more execution is expected when you're a junior who started nearly every game for the past two seasons.

All things considered, I thought this was actually one of Mangok Mathiang's best performances. He fought hard in a situation where he was pretty clearly outclassed, finished when he had the opportunity on offense and swatted shots away in key moments multiple times. The only thing he did that I took issue with was playing Julius Randle like he wasn't left-handed. It's an honest mistake if it happens once, but you can't get burned by something that easily correctible on more than one occasion, which is what wound up happening.

As for Trez, I'm glad that Pitino said he needs to get his focus back to rebounding, blocking shots and finishing plays around the rim. Dominate those areas of the game and let all that other stuff come.

8. It's been discussed by anyone and everyone who talks about Louisville sports, but U of L has got to get more from the three spot.

I can't tell if it's because he's letting his elbow fly just a touch more, but Luke Hancock's shot just looks different this year than it did last year. Basketball's a strange game in that you can do seven or eight different things really well, but if you do one (shooting) poorly, everyone says you played a bad game. Luke did a lot of good things against Kentucky, but he missed six out of eight three-pointers, five of which were not well-defended. There's still no one I'd rather have taking a shot with the game on the line, but a slump-busting performance at some point in the next couple of weeks could be a nice corner turner for this team.

I'll say it again: Wayne Blackshear might be the unluckiest player to ever suit up for Louisville. We saw the foul call already, but what about him getting absolutely flat-backed on the bench when Russ went after a loose ball? We needed something big from Patriotic Cut-Up Wayne, and he never really had a chance to make an impression on the game until things had pretty much already been decided.

9. I don't buy the notion that the rivalry game is only significant for the fans, because I do think both teams wind up being affected at least somewhat mentally. I mean how could they not be? These players can't go anywhere either on social media or in real life without hearing about the game and what happened.

I do, however, think that the game typically winds up being somewhat of a statistical outlier because all of the emotion involved changes the way at least a few guys on both teams play. For example, Louisville entered Saturday's game averaging a little more than 15 assists per game and Kentucky just under 13. Both teams finished with just eight assists on Saturday, and the game's two main point guards - Chris Jones and Andrew Harrison - finished with only two dimes each.

10. Had Louisville won, I was fully prepared to pen a 2,000-word piece comparing Akoy Agau's two first half rebounds to Tim Henderson's two threes against Wichita State. It was going to be glorious.

11. The sun rose on Sunday. It wasn't bright, but it was there.

Louisville played a good squad in maybe the most hostile environment possible, and they lost. That's an experience from which some huge positives can be extracted if everyone on the team reacts to it the right way.

As unbearable as the last 40 hours have been and as annoying as it will be to hear the same score referenced so many times for the next year, there's still an entire season of basketball ahead. There's two months of conference play, there's Chicken coming to the Bucket, there's what should be a fun league tournament for the fans in Memphis and, of course, there's still a national championship to defend in March.

There was no title exchange inside Rupp Arena on Saturday. No trophies were hoisted and no nets were cut down. The Louisville Cardinals are still the reigning kings of college basketball, and in 12 weeks or so they'll have an opportunity to earn that distinction for another year. It's OK to be upset about the loss, but so much so that you lose sight of those facts.