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Metamorphosis: Kentucky Defeats Louisville 73-66 And Becomes A Team In The Process

This was one of those cathartic moments we get every now and then, and it was most welcome.

Alex Poythress had a very good game tonight.
Alex Poythress had a very good game tonight.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing feels better in December than a victory over the Louisville Cardinals. Nothing. It's so difficult going into the new year with a loss to them that I never want to have that feeling again. Unfortunately, it's bound to happen ... but not this season.

I have already congratulated the Cardinals on their effort, but I have to be honest that they didn't play a very good game. Kentucky had a lot to do with that, of course, but even considering that, they missed a bunch of open shots, missed free throws they don't normally miss, and had almost nothing at all out of their whole front line. I'm sure this is a game Louisville fans would like to rack up to "just a bad game," and I'd be hard pressed to argue too much about that to some extent, but I don't think you can separate out the part that Kentucky played.  So this win goes to Kentucky pure and simple.  No whining, please.

For Kentucky, this was by far the best game they have played to date. Period. Forget the shooting percentages, the missed free throws, the occasional blown assignment, all that. Today, this was a basketball team, and not just a collection of McDonalds All-Americans. They played with passion, if imperfectly, and refused to allow the negative things to affect them. Even after Louisville came back in the second half to take the lead, the Wildcats refused to hang their heads. Instead, they bowed their necks and played basketball.

I have discussed more than once the importance of this win, and I can't even begin to explain how much better I feel about this team after today. When a team starts to come together, it is a beautiful thing. It is so rewarding when all these young players, up until now little more than a gathering of talent, show themselves to be a nascent basketball team. And as talented as they are, imagining them as an actual team with the cohesiveness of a Louisville or a Syracuse should give nightmares to the likes of Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim.

Team observations

  • Kentucky defeated Louisville in every single one of the Four Factors to winning. The only thing that kept this from being a blowout was the poor free throw shooting. That is all. To wit:

  • Kentucky's team defense was remarkable. Holding this Louisville team to 66 points is very good. The bottom line is that Kentucky absolutely played defense — hard. For the first time all season.

  • What can you say about the team rebounding? It was ... truly awesome.

  • Kentucky forced more turnovers than Louisville. Key accomplished.

  • Free throw shooting continues to be abysmal. It will get a lot better, trust me. Be patient. We have some good free throw shooters that are just not ready to make them against this kind of intensity. That will change.

  • 3-point shooting is still bad, but here's the thing — if we continue to defend this well, it just won't matter much. And it will also get better.

  • If you had told me this team would play a second half against Louisville, essentially tied, without Julius Randle and still win the game, I would never have believed you.

Player observations

  • Okay, the game ball goes to the whole team. This was a team effort. Game ball to the team.

  • Julius Randle was a beast, and little more can be said about that. He could have scored 50 in this game, easily, and fouled out the entire front court of Louisville. 17 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 blocks — and spent almost the whole second half on the bench.

  • Alex Poythress only scored 7 points in 21 minutes, but he defended, and he rebounded. 5 rebounds, 1 offensive, and he made all his free throws.

  • Dakari Johnson almost had a good game. Almost. He just failed to get to balls, and failed to make easy shots.

  • Dominque Hawkins is going to become another Darius Miller or even better. When he develops an offensive game, he is going to be ungodly. Hawkins played 15 minutes, had 1 point, 3 rebounds and infinite energy.

  • James Young was fantastic. He didn't do a great job shooting the ball, but the shots he made were huge, almost comically so, like some kind of movie hero burying a ridiculous shot under impossible odds. He had 18 points on 5-17 shooting, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers.

  • Willie Cauley-Stein was a lot better than his line will indicate. A lot better. He had only 2 points, but he had 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steal and 1 block. But he absolutely made Russ Smith and Chris Jones' life miserable. He is so quick, moves his feet so well, and is so absurdly long that he can actually guard a 5'10" guard on the perimeter. What 7' player could ever do that? Even Anthony Davis couldn't do it.

  • Andrew Harrison had a bit of a breakout game, if you can ignore his loathsome free throw shooting. 18 points on 6-16 shooting, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 3 turnovers. The best thing is, he didn't get in foul trouble. Yes, we want more assists from him, but he made good decisions with the ball (for the most part) and absolutely played his best game of the year. His defense was also pretty good. He was also very smart about handling the Louisville pressure.

  • Aaron Harrison was invisible in the first half, but he was a major factor in the second on both sides of the court. He really helped his brother get the ball up the court, and when he got going toward the basket, he finished. 10 points on 5-12 shooting 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 4 turnovers

Overall, this game was notable for the fact that Kentucky came together as a team, and in doing so, changed the entire trajectory of this season. Beating Louisville at anything is never a minor thing, but this game was flat-out huge for all kinds of reasons. The officiating wasn't great, but it wasn't awful either, and I think we can just be happy with the fact that it was mostly consistent. Yes, we got a call or two, but so did they.

As we move forward having finally put to bed the "Year of the Cardinal," this team has showed that it has all the potential it needs to have a Final Four, and perhaps even an NCAA Tournament championship season.  We all thought this early in the year, but we have waited patiently (or impatiently, depending on who you are), for them to emerge. While we may wonder if they can sustain it, I think we can say that they have emerged. That is exciting, and what we have been waiting for.

So celebrate, Kentucky fans. This here is a basketball team, and they are only going to get better, and their ceiling is... well, the adjective isn't in the language. Whether or not we will get to a significant part of that potential is uncertain, but I like the direction we are headed in. These young kids overcame the loss of their most potent offensive player and won against a top ten team anyway.

That's saying something for any team, especially in a rivalry game.