The question invariably comes up when talking about Kentucky; when will they get cocky? When will they feel "entitled?" When will they find a game that they just don’t get up for? These questions are justifiable, and reasonable, because we see it happen to good teams all the time. It isn’t usually a matter of "if," particularly with good teams full of fairly young players, it’s more a matter of "when."
Not getting mentally ready for a team isn’t always the kiss of death, especially if the talent disparity is very great. Consider, for example, Kentucky’s game against the Buffalo Bulls. Kentucky went into the half down five. That had to be an eye-opener for the young Wildcats. They went on to win by 19, of course, because the talent disparity was just too great to overcome. What was that all about?
Similarly, consider the game against the Columbia Lions, when Kentucky got down 11-0 early in the first half. They were down two at halftime. They went on to win by 10, but what happened there?
I think we know the answer — Kentucky came into those games feeling good, feeling jaunty, feeling entitled. That led to a lack of intensity, which led to a competitive game. We’ve seen this mentality in action, the one the Big Blue Nation legitimately fears. What happens when the Wildcats don’t come to play? They get behind.
So far, getting behind or getting in a dogfight hasn’t mattered, because the Wildcats just change lineups and work themselves back into the game. We’ve seen it twice now, and we’ve seen it where you would expect to see it — in "meaningless" games against over-matched opponents.
We’ve seen some fear around here, and in other places, that Kentucky might have such a letdown against Louisville. That’s not likely, and I’ll tell you why — because every time they have entered a game against a quality opponent, they have exerted themselves hard, with intensity and passion. Against every foe they’ve faced, that has been enough — they didn’t need their "A" game, they just needed their intensity and effort. When they had their "A" game, the result was universally embarrassing… for the other guy.
So if you’re worried about Kentucky not bringing it against Louisville, don’t. The Wildcats will bring the effort, they will bring the intensity, and they will bring the focus. The difference against Louisville is that may not be enough to get them the win like it has against other teams.
The reason is not because Louisville is especially talented. I don’t think the Cardinals are as talented as either the Texas Longhorns or the North Carolina Tar Heels, and they would be in a talent dogfight with the Kansas Jayhawks — I’d call that a draw, only because the Jayhawks are so dependent on guys who haven’t quite matured yet. NBA guys will spend more time in Lawrence than in Louisville, and no mistake.
Despite having players that are a notch below the best, Rick Pitino has a special knack for getting his charges to invest themselves heavily in playing the game his way, his system. Pitino is a "system" coach, much like a football coach who runs the triple option. It takes certain types of players to play his system, and he largely recruits from that position. He gets the kind of players that will be with him for years, so he can get them playing his way, much in the manner of a Tom Izzo. It is hard to coach his system, but it produces excellent results and generally exciting basketball.
Pitino also excels in finding leaders for his team, guys who will play to exhaustion and with great emotional energy. Edgar Sosa, Payton Siva, Russ Smith Terrence Jones and Montrezl Harrell are all prototypical Pitino players — guys who will sell out for his style game in and game out, and drag the rest of the team with them.
The point here is that Louisville is going to be totally invested in this game. They are going to bring it like it’s the last game they will ever play, and that’s why just bringing the energy is not enough for Kentucky in all probability. To be truthful, it might be… UK’s talent is significantly superior to Louisville at every position overall. Yes, Harrell might be slightly better at his spot even than WCS (I don’t think so, but let’s just stipulate for the sake of argument), but there is only one of him. Terry Rozier, despite his game-saving outburst the other day, is not superior to any of Kentucky’s guards, and neither is Wayne Blackshear, Chris Jones or Anton Gill. There is no debate at all about the rest of the front court other than the possible aforementioned Harrell.
However, I think Kentucky has to bring more than good effort — they’ll need their "A" game. We like to think that Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison are now both so confident that they’ll shoot 40% from here on out, but that’s wishful thinking. Louisville’s matchup zone is designed to prevent the kind of wide-open looks that a standard zone offense provides, so it will take better ball movement and inside-out thinking to get open looks like UK got against UCLA.
It will take more energy just to get into the half-court offense against Louisville. Louisville will try to overwhelm Kentucky with all-out effort for as long as they can sustain it. The Cardinals will sell out for turnovers, sell out to force hurried passes or bait players into throwing the ball into corners where their traps are most effective. They’ll try to make this an ugly game as fast as possible, and maximize the frustration of the Wildcats in any way possible.
Kentucky has to focus on forcing double-teams in the post, because Louisville simply isn’t good enough inside to guard UK one-on-one. But drawing a double-team is only half the solution — UK must feel the double-team coming, and pass out accurately without turning it over, and catch the ball through contact because the Cardinal guards like to grab, bump, and gamble for steals. Louisville will try to make up for their talent deficit with energy, forcing turnovers, playing rough and with a lot of emotional energy.
It won’t be easy for Kentucky to match that. The Wildcats don’t have anybody that burns as hot as Harrell, and some of the key players for Kentucky are young. Somehow, the Wildcats must match Louisville’s fire with their own level of passion, even if it isn’t white-hot and blazing for all to see. They must do this in front of a large, hostile crowd and the inevitable home calls that every home team gets from officials.
Talent won’t be enough in this game — even if that’s beyond the Cardinals’ control, the intensity that they bring is something they can control. Even during their best games, Kentucky has relied as much on intimidation and adjustments, such as pack-line and zone defenses, to get them open looks. The Cardinals will not adjust their style for Kentucky, so the Wildcats will not have the advantage of a team playing an unfamiliar or lightly practiced defense. They will bring the Pitino pressing, the pressure matchup zone, and the physical guard play just like they do against every team for one big reason — it produces results.
The conclusion is this — Kentucky must match Louisville in the energy department in order for their talent to make the most difference. The more the Cardinals are able to out-effort the Wildcats, the less the talent disparity matters. Louisville only knows one way to play, and it’s always the same every year. There are no mysteries here, no gimmicks, no sleight of hand. Pitino will play his system and trust it, and it has a history of delivering in the long run.
If the Wildcats want to win, they have to want it more, listen to the coaching staff, and play with controlled intensity. It’s a tall order, but the closer they get to matching the Cardinals’ energy, the more successful they will be.