Rush the Court was in Lexington today for the Kentucky-Louisville game from Rupp Arena.
Three Key Takeaways.
- Louisville Won’t Repeat Unless Mangok Mathiang Becomes a Trusted Defensive Finisher. The Louisville big man came into tonight’s game as a freshman starter with elite-level numbers — an offensive rating that ranks among the nation’s 100 best players, a top 25 ranking in offensive rebounding percentage, and a top 75 ranking in block percentage. So what’s the problem? The issue is that he only plays 18 minutes per game (22 tonight), which suggests that Rick Pitino doesn’t trust him as much as he does some of his veterans like Stephan Van Treese, Montrezl Harrell, Luke Hancock and Chane Behanan. Van Treese doesn’t bring much other than a big body for spot minutes to the table, but the latter three — while key contributors, all — are simply not big enough to compete with the elite big men around the country. A lineup where 6’5″ Wayne Blackshear is expected to defend seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein in the post is simply ridiculous. Pitino needs one more reliable defensive post player whom he can trust down the stretch of close games, and Mathiang is really his only viable option there.
- Kentucky Playing Most of the Second Half Without Julius Randle Will Serve Dividends Later. For an extended period of the second half, Kentucky star forward Julius Randle was sidelined with cramps, briefly re-entering the game with about 12 minutes remaining only to beg out a few seconds later. The key stretch was from around the 14-minute mark to the six-minute mark, as the Wildcats, led by Andrew Harrison and James Young, outscored the Cardinals 15-4 to take a commanding lead in what had been a tight one. Not only is this huge for a young team’s confidence, but the black hole aspect of a post-up by Randle was removed from the offensive equation (and why wouldn’t you keep feeding a guy who had 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the first half?), and Kentucky’s offense actually got better as a result. Penetration-and-kick became the offense, and the Harrison twins are as good as any guards in the country at both getting shots up in the lane and finessing them into the hole. Young, with a jumper and a three of his own during this stretch, did his part, but the key takeaway here is that the other Wildcats are also incredibly talented offensive players, and tonight revealed a dimension that they can rely on in the case of foul trouble or injury to Randle down the line.
- Kentucky’s Ceiling is Higher than Louisville’s. It’s tough to draw deep conclusions from a young team playing at home in front of a rabid crowd that willed them through. But after seeing both teams in person today, it’s obvious enough that in the battle of which team has fewer flaws and a higher potential ceiling, it is Kentucky. Even though the Wildcats are a lot younger than Louisville and exhibit it by making a lot of dumb mistakes (and missing half their free throws), they have more guys who can just go get buckets when called upon. Few teams in the country have that luxury — maybe Arizona and Kansas, perhaps Duke and Florida — but the Wildcats of November will look a lot different than the one of March, and we’re seeing that transformation happening right before our eyes.
Star of the Game. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky. He didn’t have the greatest shooting night at 6-of-16 from the field for 18 points and four assists, but as mentioned above, he was the spark that led his team to victory when Randle left the game. It was really a matter of his penetration into the paint which allowed him to call his own number for floaters a few times as well as to find kickouts for James Young’s jumpers. His brother Aaron came on strong at the end, for what was probably the best combined game for the Texas twins in a Kentucky uniform. Certainly the best meaningful game.