Well, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, it actually happened. The Kentucky Wildcats upset the Louisville Cardinals in the Sweet Sixteen, handing Rick Pitino his first ever loss in the round of sixteen, and sending the defending NCAA Tournament champion Louisville Cardinals home to the River City.
We must recognize, first and foremost, the outstanding effort given by Louisville. They did a lot of good things in this game, and honestly, dominated the game from the 15:00 remaining in the first half until halftime, then stayed in front despite Kentucky throwing everything in the book at them. The Cardinals lost the game, but they gave the effort that champions give from tip to horn. Great season, and much respect.
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There are a lot of things about Kentucky you can say, good and bad. But one thing that is beyond dispute is that this iteration of the Wildcats does not know what "quit" means. It is a totally alien concept to them. That is the one thing that has been as constant as the Northern Star, to borrow a phrase from the Bard of Avon.
When Willie Cauley-Stein went out, I almost gave up. That doesn't matter. The team did not.
This was not a pretty game for either team. Louisville was a little too frenetic for their own good, and Kentucky was once again missing layups and open shots. This was the kind of game Kentucky usually lost in the regular season.
Free throw shooting was a huge factor in this game. Kentucky made well above their season average, and got to the line a lot. Louisville missed two or three more than normal for them, and that was approximately the margin.
The four factors for the season are almost exactly what they looked like in the game for both teams. That's fairly rare.
Kentucky exceeded my expectations on the offensive glass, but disappointed me a little on the defensive glass. That's one area where Kentucky did not take care of business, and it almost did them in.
Under 20% turnovers against Louisville? That's a win.
Shooting wasn't great for Kentucky despite quality looks from the floor. But they made their unguarded 15-footers, and as often as they get to the line, that's a killer.
Luke Hancock abused Kentucky's defense, no matter who guarded him.
33% assists. Well, that just goes to show you... something. Not sure what.
There were a lot of fundamental breakdowns by Kentucky, particularly rebounding. This was a game that was almost the antithesis of the Wichita State game.
Dakari Johnson was an absolute man last night, and he shares the game ball with Alex Poythress. That and-one he made with 6:35 left was the turning point in the game. He made his layups, he made a critical free throw, had 6 rebounds and only 1 turnover. Great game for the young man.
Alex Poythress made some huge plays down the stretch, plays that were significant in the outcome of the game, and thus shares the game ball. In less than two minutes starting at the 4:10 mark in the game, he made a dunk on the baseline, blocked Russ Smith, stole the ball from Luke Hancock, got an offensive rebound, was fouled, and made a free throw to tie the game. 40 seconds later, he made a free throw to put the Wildcats ahead for the first time since the first minute of the game.
Julius Randle was very good, although I still say 50% from where he shoots it is way too low. Four turnovers also mired his double-double effort. It says something about a player when a double-double won't win you the game ball, mainly about the fact that it has become so routine that it's not that noteworthy. Great free throw shooting by the soon-to-be lottery pick.
Aaron Harrison didn't make a single 2-point shot, but he made some threes, in particular a dagger from the left corner with 39 seconds left. More importantly, he made all six of his free throw attempts, the last two to seal the game.
Andrew Harrison had a very good game. He had 7 assists vs 2 turnovers, plus he shot the ball reasonably well and made free throws.
Willie Cauley-Stein played only four minutes and left with an injury. We still don't know how serious it is, but from what I've read, it may well be bad enough to end his season. If any ligaments got torn in his ankle, that's at least a 4-6 month recovery.
James Young played only 19 minutes with foul problems, and he was never in the game, although he did get four rebounds and four points in that short time. Luke Hancock simply abused him. I was embarrased for him. Hopefully, he'll get his mojo back by Sunday.
Dominque Hawkins was needed, and he delivered defensively. He worked very hard out there. He's not an offensive threat or a rebounder, but he doesn't make too many mistakes and he does what he's told. We'll be needing him in the next game too, most likely.
Jarrod Polson is not built to play against Louisville. Hence, he got only a couple of minutes.
Marcus Lee made a brief appearance, but we may be needing a lot more of him. Hope he's ready.
Tying it all up
This was an absolute barn-burner of a game with every bit as much drama and tension as the Wichita State Shockers game last weekend. It's always great to beat a rival, but the most important thing is that Kentucky advanced to the Elite Eight against all odds. It wasn't pretty, it's never going to be considered alongside the WSU game as a great tournament game from a pure basketball standpoint. But even more so than versus the Shockers, the Wildcats showed major grit amongst serious foul problems and an injury against a great, mature, championship basketball team.
Louisville fans will point to missed free throws as a major factor, and it definitely did help Kentucky. With that said, Louisville managed to get the lead out to seven late in the game, and the young Wildcats just bowed their backs and took it away from them. Louisville didn't lose the game at the line, their free throw shooting has never been great. Kentucky just rose up and took it from them by making huge plays down the stretch, and refusing to accept defeat.
Louisville's experience didn't matter to these Wildcats. They are tired of hearing about it. Unfortunately, the media never gets tired of harping on it. If UK wins this whole thing, we'll all thumb our nose, in concert, at their agenda-pushing. Experience cannot always, or even usually, overcome talent, and the last two games are examples of that truism.
I have no idea what to expect going forward, but I do know that John Calipari is going to have to recalibrate his rotations with the loss of WCS. We have no idea how that will affect the team, but injuries are a part of basketball, and nobody knows that better than Kentucky after Nerlens Noel went down last season against Florida.
Now, the Wildcats face the Michigan Wolverines, one of the best shooting teams in college basketball. It will be a very tough matchup for Kentucky, and WCS will be missed in a big way. Can Kentucky find a way to continue this magical run? I can't wait to find out.