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Some lingering thoughts on Louisville’s loss to Kentucky

We never really talked about it and we need to do that.

Louisville v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

These thoughts are clearly long overdue, maybe even stale at this point, but the holidays got nuts for the Rutherfords this year, and honestly, everyone should probably wait almost a full five days if they really want to talk about this game openly and honestly. So let’s do it.

—Let’s start with a positive here, because that’s the best way to handle any rehash of a traumatic experience.

This is going to sound like the most homer of homer starts, but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. I walked out of Rupp Arena last Saturday feeling better about Louisville’s prospects of successfully navigating the next two months and winning the ACC than I did when I walked into the building. I felt 10 times worse about myself and about life in general, but that’s what this game does to us.

The reason wasn’t because the Cards played spectacularly and just got screwed by the officiating or dumb luck or whatever. It was because the two point guards that I believe are going to continue to carry the load at that position all season long handled 40 minutes of consistent pressure of Kentucky’s bigger and more athletic guards the way they’re going to have to if U of L is going to have a shot at winning this thing in March.

The much maligned duo of Darius Perry and Fresh Kimble combined to play 63 minutes, they shot 7-of-13 from the floor, dished out seven assists, and committed zero turnovers. If you would have told me that and nothing but that before the game, I would have been 97 percent certain that we were talking about a game Louisville had won and probably won comfortably.

If these guys can be those types of players for the next three months, we have a shot.

—The biggest thing I wrote and talked about on the radio show after the Miami of Ohio game was the need for someone on this team to step up and become the presence who isn’t afraid to grab some people’s jerseys or get in some people’s faces when Louisville is going through one of its “sleepy” phases. The most likely candidate for this position seemed to be Dwayne Sutton, who one would assume is near the top of the list of most respected guys on the team. Chris Mack, who brought Sutton to both press conferences before the Kentucky game, seemed to silently agree.

I’m not sure how much the cameras picked up on this (I haven’t watched the full replay and I’m probably not going to), but the Louisville player who was the most vocal and animated and consistently hyping his teammates up was Fresh Kimble. Even though he wasn’t starting the second half, he was the one who before play started in that half huddled everyone up and was smacking guys in the chest and getting everyone fired up. Maybe this is going to be Kimble’s role moving forward. He certainly doesn’t seem hesitant to embrace it, and playing the way he did against UK had to only elevate his respect level within the team.

As far as Sutton is concerned, his effort level and his overall play speak for itself, and it’s always apparent how much his teammates feed off that. But Mack has mentioned multiple times before that he’d like Dwayne to transition into more of a vocal leader than a lead by example guy. Some players just aren’t comfortable doing that, which is understandable. It’s awkward to get in the face of one of your best friends and tell him to wake the fuck up, especially if doing those types of things doesn’t come naturally.

—I don’t think I can watch the full replay for two reasons. 1) It will literally (LITERALLY) kill me. 2) It sounded like Cardinal fans were disappointed by Raftery’s call, and I love Raf too much to put myself through that.

This is how the man lives in my heart and I want to keep it that way.

—Let’s talk about the experience at Rupp for a minute.

First of all, big thanks to my buddy Mark Kull for securing tickets at an auction and bringing me so we could infiltrate a lower level section together. We arrived in Lexington with plenty of time to spare, and after waltzing into Rupp with no issue, I immediately remembered that they don’t sell alcohol in there. It was a bad moment for both me and my nerves a half hour before tip.

We get to our seats and this is what is directly in front of us:

It was a rough moment.

I will say, the two people — although they were as animated as you might expect — weren’t anything resembling nasty. In fact, the woman turned around near the end of the game and thanked us for being respectful.

I ended up being encircled by the full UK basketball fan experience. We had these guys in front of us, an older gentleman to my right wearing a t-shirt tucked into a 30-year-old pair of Wrangler jeans who screamed about every single whistle and yelled that Louisville walked every time a Cardinal player caught a pass, and then we had a couple of bougee older men sitting behind us that are the types of fans that I hear most of my UK fan friends/family complain about. The men were wearing Mr. Rodgers sweaters, refused to stand up at any point, and complained about John Calipari CONSTANTLY. At one point, one of them spoke sternly (he would never shout) about the “Harlem Globetrotters bullshit offense” that Kentucky was running, and I laughed so hard that there’s zero chance he didn’t know it.

There it is: The complete Kentucky basketball fan experience from all three sides, simultaneously, for two hours. It wasn’t lovely.

—On the whole, the Kentucky fans around us were fine, and the experience wasn’t overly annoying until after the game.

After Hagans’ final dunk, I would venture to say that 75 percent of the building was doing the L’s down thing, which I have to believe hit its apex at that moment. There’s no way it can get bigger, although the more attention Louisville fans give to it, the more Kentucky fans are going to try. That’s also when you started to hear a little bit of the “get the fuck out of here” and “go the fuck back home” stuff, which we did as quickly as possible.

—Speaking of the L’s down stuff, I know the camera caught Nick Richards celebrating and doing it to the crowd, but I don’t think it picked up on him sprinting over to our bench and doing it right in the face of the coaching staff. Even Dino Gaudio looked angry, which takes some doing.

—This is where we’re going to talk about Jordan Nwora.

The two main takeaways from the game are pretty straightforward, I think:

1) If Louisville shoots an average or even modestly below average percentage at the free-throw line, they win the game. U of L had a combined four misses from two guys who entered the game shooting 94 and 85 percent from the stripe.

2) Kentucky’s most talented player served up his most impressive performance of the season while Louisville’s most talented player played about as poorly as he’s capable of playing.

This is why basketball is a cruel game. If Louisville has just a decently bad afternoon at the free-throw line or if Jordan Nwora has just a decently bad afternoon overall, we’re spending this week about the toughness the Cards displayed inside the most hostile arena they’ll play in this season, about how the second half may have been the best half they’ve played this season, and about how we may have just witnessed this lengthy period of Kentucky dominance in the rivalry coming to an end. Neither of those things happened, and so the conversations of the last four days have been the ones we’ve all heard.

In Louisville’s three biggest non-conference games of the season — Michigan, Texas Tech and Kentucky — Nwora went a combined 15-of-49 (30.6 percent) from the field and 3-of-18 (16.7 percent) from three. Jordan made a single three-pointer in all three games. There has only been one other game this season (Youngstown State) where he’s failed to knock down more than one triple.

Against Kentucky, Nwora also pulled down only four rebounds — his lowest total of the season outside of a three rebound effort against NC Central when he played just 20 minutes — and finished with no assists for only the third time this season.

Jordan’s struggles against the most athletic and talented teams on Louisville’s schedule is certainly worrisome, but his reaction to those troubles on Saturday is what bothered me the most. I don’t know how to say it any other way than this: The pouting has to stop. The days of allowing how you’re playing on the offensive end to affect things like how hard you attack the glass or how fast you run down to the other end of the floor to defend should be gone forever once you close the book on your freshman year. They especially should be gone forever when you’re an All-American candidate and the best player on a team that’s ranked in the nation’s top five.

As bad as the reaction to Jordan’s play on Saturday was, it would have been twice as bad had Keion Brooks’ tip-in at the end of regulation stayed down. That replay was a very bad look for Nwora, who was standing still and watching as his man went right past him and nearly ended the biggest game in this state as a result.

Had that happened, that replay would have been on every highlight show in the country, and everyone would have been talking about the same thing we’re talking about now.

The time is now, Jordan. If numbers are still fine and you’re still going to have no trouble lighting up the bottom half of the ACC, but if you’re serious about being a top 20 pick and your team to Atlanta (something that will help with the first thing), it’s time to turn the page and leave the BS behind forever.

—I’m not even going to dive into the “of course they shot a season-high from three against us” thing because I think everyone on both sides just assumed that was going to be the case going into the game. That wasn’t where the game was won or lost, but it certainly wasn’t cool.

—Chris Mack finally ruffled some feathers in Lexington after the game with this quote.

I think he knew how this was going to be received, but had to say it any way because it as an integral part of the answer he was giving. He also said it because it’s factual.

This isn’t a knock on Calipari or a regurgitation of the tired “he just rolls the ball out there and watches them play” dig, it’s merely an acknowledgement of reality. Calipari works with a limited playbook because 1) He has a perpetually youthful roster and 2) He almost always has the talent to justify keeping things simple.

Gibson Pyper, who does the fantastic Big Game Pod with Jordan Sperber, keeps a constantly updated playbook on every Division-I coach and says that out of the major coaches, Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski have the thinnest. That’s not a coincidence.

For comparison’s sake, Pyper says that the playbook he has for Calipari features 73 plays. The one he has for Mack, and he admits that he didn’t go all the way back to Mack’s early years at Xavier, has more than 180.

Against Louisville, Cal’s gameplan was very obvious. He wanted to identify who U of L’s weakest defender was on the floor, run the player who said Cardinal was guarding off a series of screens, and then either get that player into an iso situation or take advantage of Louisville’s extra help with an easy bucket inside or a clear look outside.

The set that worked the most for Kentucky was one of Calipari’s favorites, his baseline runner series. Because it continued to work, he continued to go to it time and time and time again.

Here’s a great breakdown of how that looked:

—It’s also mentioned in that video, but the cross screen play for Nick Richards that put them up 70-68 in OT was the most made I got all game. The reason is because he defended that exact play so well multiple times earlier in the game, and because the player who screwed up — Malik Williams — is one of the better defensive big men we’ve had in a long time. I don’t know if he was tired or if he didn’t recognize what was happening, or what, but that cannot happen in a situation that large. Couple that with giving up the offensive rebound and and-one to Richards on the possession before, and it was a very rough stretch for Malik.

—A lot of people have asked about David Johnson only seeing the floor for that defensive possession right at the end of the first half where Louisville went zone and Kentucky promptly drilled a three. My understanding, and it certainly appeared to be backed up by the way he looked in pregame, is that David is still dealing with a little bit of discomfort from that shoulder. Not enough to keep him out long-term or enough to keep him off the floor if the situation had absolutely demanded it, but enough to keep him from playing his best against a team like UK.

—The absolute worst part about last Saturday (and there were a million) was that after Jordan hit the three and we went up 68-65 in overtime, I really let my mind go to the “we’ve got this” place. I started thinking about how fun the drive back was going to be and the night was going to be and the radio show was going to me. I told myself alllll day not to let your mind go there. I couldn’t fight it in that moment, and it made the 15 minutes or so that followed even more painful.

—Here’s the other thing about that moment when Louisville went up three: The entire blue portion of Rupp Arena seemed to get that same feeling. Everyone acted like the game was over, so much so that Calipari had to look up at the crowd with confused crazy eyes and implore them to get back into the game.

The reverse happened when Ryan McMahon missed that three-pointer with the Cards trailing 72-70. There were still 20 seconds to play, but everyone celebrated as though the final horn had just sounded. People around us were hugging, the L’s downs were flying, I think I saw a couple of people crying. I mean, they ended up being right, but it still felt like a wild overreaction to the moment.

—Going back to the McMahon three, that was a set play out of a “pistol” set, and while I didn’t hate it quite as much as it seems like most of you did, it still was not my preference in that situation. I would have felt differently had Ryan just knocked down three in a row or if Steven Enoch wasn’t feeling like an automatic bucket in the paint at that point, but neither of those things were the case in that situation.

This almost felt like the road team going for two after scoring on the second possession in overtime. Mack did not want to play another five minutes, and this was a step towards making that happen. I get it, but as previously mentioned, throwing the ball into Enoch at that point felt like an automatic two points. If you want a better shot at a three from a guard who has a bigger and more athletic player guarding him, have him as the primary kickout option for Enoch and see if his man will sag to try and help the post defender. If he does, boom, you’ve got the kickout and a clean look at a one-point lead. If he doesn’t, you let Steven tie the game and you try and get a stop on the other end.

Of course this is all much, much easier to talk about after the fact.

—As for the out-of-bounds set that happened moments later, that’s actually a pretty popular end of game set that Brad Stevens has made famous in recent years. It’s referred to simply as “Winner.”

Based on the way Louisville was lined up, it looks like the end result was supposed to be Ryan McMahon coming off a Jordan Nwora screen for a three.

When it doesn’t work .... yeah, it looks pretty bad.

—The most interesting part of Louisville’s attack in this game is that on 13 possessions (via Pyper) the Cardinals ran a chin continuity series that we haven’t seen from U of L at any other point under Chris Mack. It seems like Mack either installed the package during the 10-day layoff or had been keeping it on the back burner just for this game. However it happened, it worked. Louisville produced points on eight of the 13 possessions it utilized the action.

The other thing that’s interesting about this wrinkle is the question of whether or not this was done specifically because it might work as a surprise against Kentucky, or because Mack is still trying to figure out the best way to utilize the pieces he’s working with. Louisville didn’t do any high ball screen stuff this game, which was 80 percent of the offense with Christen Cunningham running the show last season.

Regardless, the Cards have a number of vastly different halfcourt sets to pick and choose from as they enter league play, and that’s an asset when you play in a conference as diverse and loaded with elite coaching staffs as the ACC.

—This is where I’m supposed to end by saying “losing to Kentucky sucks, but at the end of the day, it’s just one game and this Cardinal team is still fully capable of winning the ACC and making a run to Atlanta.” All of that is true, but I’m still not ready to use it as an effective cushion just yet.

I hate losing this game with every ounce of my being, and I’m never going to hide from that. The blow never gets any easier to absorb, even when you’re feeling it for the 11th time in 10 years. The fact that this rivalry has become so one-sided and that the entire country has noticed is embarrassing and annoying and every other negative adjective you can think of. I’m not going to hide from that.

What I am going to do is acknowledge that Louisville played a fantastic second half, had its backcourt take a massive step forward, and would be the No. 2 team in the country right now if its best player had played a C- or even D+ game.

Now let’s (finally) flip the page to 2020 ... and make some free-throws.