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10 Belated thoughts on Louisville’s win over Kentucky

It was still very cool.

Kentucky v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I know it’s been four days, but I finally got a chance to rewatch the full game this morning, so let’s run through just a few quick thoughts.

1. I watched solid chunks of Kentucky’s losses to Richmond, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame. I watched Louisville wallop a Western Kentucky team that I legitimately think would have beaten the Wildcats with the same type of effort they gave on that night. I listened to John Calipari sound rattled and desperate in the days leading up to the 2020 Battle of the Bluegrass. None of this made me confident that Louisville was going to prevail on Saturday.

My first dose of real optimism didn’t come until approximately 12:01 p.m. on Dec. 26. That was the moment I got my first glimpse of Calipari’s game attire.

Nothing epitomizes the current state of Kentucky basketball more than John Calipari morphing from the smoothest talking, slickest dressing, most feared man in college basketball to dressing like the recently divorced dad who’s trying to hide his belly by rocking an Untuckit shirt for Thursday night happy hour at Summit Drakes.

This was the first moment where I thought we might be ok.

2. That last sentence previously read “this was the moment I knew we were going to be ok,” but I had to change it because that would have been an egregious lie.

I had to change it because the moment Dre Davis became the 85th Cardinal this season to catch a pass while standing out-of-bounds, giving Kentucky the ball with 47 seconds to play and the score tied at 59, I would have given Louisville no more than a 3.1 percent chance of winning the game.

In that moment, I couldn’t even muster the strength to be mad. I sat there motionless, holding the Fischer Price basketball I’d been using to get nervous shots up during breaks in the action, stared blankly at the television, and felt the life slowly start the process of draining from my body for the 12th or 13th time in 2020.

In the final six minutes of Saturday’s game, Louisville managed one made field goal (a banked in jumper from Carlik Jones), and turned the ball over on each of its last three true possessions. That they still found a way to win the game is something of a minor miracle.

Not too many people voiced concerns over the weekend about the way Louisville limped to the finish line (myself included), and that’s totally understandable. That’s also probably not going to be the case for the rest of the season, which is equally understandable.

3. The Bluegrass Sports Commission named Carlik Jones and David Johnson Co-MVPs of Saturday’s game, but the state’s Mr. Basketball panel actually voted to have Jones share the honor with Kentucky’s Dontaie Allen. Allen didn’t play a second in the game, but the panel stated its belief that based on his junior season of high school ball, he would have netted at least 35 points and won the game for Kentucky had he been permitted to see the floor.

4. I don’t know what this team’s deal coming out of halftime is, but it was once again an issue on Saturday.

The primary culprit was Samuell Williamson, who missed a jumper, committed a silly foul, got blocked by Isaiah Jackson’s elbow leading to a Kentucky dunk, and then traveled all in the span of two minutes. Toss in a careless David Johnson turnover that led to another easy Wildcat bucket, and very quickly, Louisville’s halftime advantage turned in to a 34-30 deficit.

This is where we talk about Quinn Slazinski.

In order to win a rivalry game where the talent level is at least comparable, I think you always need to have at least one or two guys who just don’t give a shit about the moment or the buzz or the other side or any of that stuff. That’s Quinn Slazinski. I’m sure he’s well aware that every scholarship player on Kentucky’s roster had a better recruiting ranking than he did, and that most of them are far more naturally gifted than he is. He doesn’t give a shit.

Slazinski came in for Williamson, buried a huge momentum shifting three from the corner, called Isaiah Jackson a “fuckboi,” got Jackson so mad that he demanded the ball on the next possession, goaded Jackson into an obvious charge, and then pointed at his head after both players fell to the court and the whistle was blown.

One of the biggest narratives about this game in recent years has been that while the fans hate one another, the players really don’t harbor that much animosity because most of them aren’t from the area and a lot of them became friends on the grassroots circuit. Well, Quinn Slazinski seems to hate Kentucky. Louisville was better for it on Saturday.

Also, that Devin Askew flex at the Cardinal bench was cute. He didn’t score again.

5. That was the good side of that sequence. The other side that we have to address is the fact that Samuell Williamson has got to be much, much better moving forward if this team wants to have any shot at hitting its ceiling.

You can miss shots, you can make mistakes, but you simply cannot get away with being passive. Not in a game like that. Not when you’re so obviously one of your team’s most naturally gifted players.

After getting off to a nice start by scoring Louisville’s first basket, Williamson was mostly non-existent on Saturday. He seemed to be going through the motions for stretches, and at one point, left Davion Mintz wide open on the wing on three consecutive defensive possessions. Mintz capitalized by hitting triples on the first two of those occasions. BJ Boston foolishly plowed into the lane for a charge on the third.

Sam’s best stretch as a Cardinal came right before he injured his foot in the Seton Hall game. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get him back to that place, but it has to happen.

6. In my preview of Saturday’s game I both stated my belief that Olivier Sarr would lead Kentucky in scoring and noted that “Louisville defenders should dare (Jacob) Toppin to beat them any time he’s on the floor and has the ball in his hands.” Naturally, Sarr went a second straight game without a made field goal and missed the most important shot of the game, while Toppin somehow morphed into a more versatile and offensively effective version of his older brother.

There’s never any point in attempting to preview this game. One year I’ll swallow my pride, write “Kentucky sucks,” hit publish, and then call it a week.

7. Even though he only buried the first one, I thought each of Josh Nickelberry’s first three three-point attempts were in rhythm and looked great coming off his hands. The fourth one was well-defended and a bit rushed, but I think you can chalk that up to getting lost in a moment where Louisville had seized all the momentum and appeared to be on the verge of landing a fatal blow.

Nickelberry doesn’t have to be Ryan McMahon or Jordan Nwora, but if his outside shot can be reliable enough to keep opposing defense’s honest, it’s going to really help Louisville’s half-court spacing in some of these ACC games. The fact that he has the potential to be a terrific on-ball defender on the other end of the floor is a nice bonus.

8. He was listed on Louisville’s unavailability report before the game, but Charles Minlend going through U of L’s full pregame on Saturday would seem to be a solid indication that he’s very close to being ready to make his Cardinal debut. I still think Minlend will play a large role in whatever success Louisville does or does not have after the New Year, so getting him on the floor sooner rather than later would be wonderful.

9. There was some talk after the game that Louisville benefitted from avoiding the “nervous energy” that’s typically palpable when 23,000 people are packed into the Yum Center for this game. I’d put more stock in that if the Cards hadn’t looked every bit as flustered in the game’s final five minutes as they have in some years past.

I think the bigger thing is that we’re at our best in this rivalry when there’s an atypical element at play. Limited fans, game played on a week night before Christmas (2016), Billy Gillispie noticeably intoxicated on the sidelines; this is where we thrive.

Am I saying play next year’s game in warm-up pants or with every player wearing an eye patch? Maybe.

10. I applaud the gracious Kentucky fans out there who have taken on the “grin and bear it” approach to losing this game. I’ve never tried to hide the fact that every loss to Kentucky takes away a small piece of my soul, and that I think you have to embrace that despair in order to truly feel the euphoria of being on the other end.

Other Kentucky fans, of course, have gone in a different direction. There have been the “we still own the series” and “why would you even celebrate beating a UK team this bad” and “lol strippers” responses that were predictable days before this game was even played. Whatever.

Look, Chris Mack threw gas on the flames of this rivalry by calling out Calipari and Kentucky at a time when Big Blue Nation believed Louisville was, at best, a fringe top 25 team and their own “loaded” squad was a preseason top five caliber team fully capable of winning the program’s ninth national championship. If backing up that bravado isn’t worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.

I always say that in a rivalry series like this, two games matter more than any others: The last one and the next one. For the next year, the last one belongs to us. That’s always cause for celebration.