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The Freshman Impact On the Kentucky vs. Louisville Contest

The freshman shone very bright yesterday for Kentucky.

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

After sleeping on the game yesterday, I have been trying to sort through my impressions and feelings of the contest. In my excitement, I forgot to record the game, so I can’t yet go back and watch it again, but that doesn’t seem necessary at the moment. What I saw was a Kentucky basketball team doing very much the same things they have done all season — defending with remarkable intensity, rebounding furiously, and finding ways to manufacture points against one of the more impressive defenses I have seen.

There was nothing really remarkable about this game, because both teams did pretty much the same things they have done all season. Even the outcome was pretty much according to Hoyle, although I expected a higher-scoring game for some reason.

I guess you could say the most remarkable thing about this game was how in-character it was for both of these teams. Sometimes in the struggle against our arch-rival, we see players out of sorts and doing things they don’t normally do. What we saw yesterday was very little of that, although some guys had good games and others not so good. Both teams had players with down games, and players with good games. Both teams played true to their identity, and both played as hard as they could.

In the end, talent won, as it usually does. If there is a lesson from the Calipari era, it is the intuition that superior talent usually wins over superior experience. Not always, of course, and experience does matter. But in this game, and we’ve seen this before, the youngest of the players were actually the most productive, and Louisville’s lack of overall basketball talent was their undoing. They have plenty of fine athletes who are improving basketball players, but they have very few guys who could go to the NBA this season, perhaps only one. Kentucky has many more, perhaps as many as seven or eight. In the end, that mattered.

What I loved about this game was the physicality of Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns. Usually, high-skill guys like him are contact-averse and don’t like getting into wrestling around in the post. But Towns is fine with it, and he has both the size and strength to do it very well. The best part is, he has no idea just how good he is yet. If he finds out this season, just enjoy it, because he won’t be here next year, nor should he be. He is showing himself to be quite ready, both physically and mentally, for the next level.

Towns has been playing a little below his expected level lately, particularly in the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Texas Longhorns. In the game against the Cardinals, he was very much a force inside, and is becoming more comfortable taking shots away from the basket. But what was most notable about this effort was how comfortable he was in the post against a very physical basketball team.

I also loved the way Tyler Ulis played this game. Louisville does a great job of denying penetration opportunities with that amazing zone they play, and that put Andrew Harrison out of his comfort zone. Andrew needs to penetrate to be at his best, and Louisville, to their credit, made that very hard for him.

Ulis, on the other hand, doesn’t really create penetration. Instead, he focuses on ball movement, and what I really like about his game is that he makes the easy play. That’s one reason that he has so few turnovers when passing the ball — he doesn’t try to make the hard pass, like Andrew sometimes does. He’s also patient, an underrated quality in a point guard.

Trey Lyles was also excellent yesterday. He’s cool under pressure and plays with a very even tempo. Lyles isn’t over-aggressive and tries to let the game come to him rather than trying to create shots for himself. he’s also a very good midrange shooter, and even if the midrange shot is a dying breed and is statistically the "worst" shot in basketball, those who can make a high percentage from 15 feet and in are very valuable players, as those shots get yielded by defenses designed to prevent threes and layups.

Lastly, Devin Booker had a fine game yesterday. He’s always an offensive threat, but that isn’t really the part of his game that impressed me. What impressed me is how well he defended, and how he has allowed himself to be influenced by the commitment of his teammates to defense, and is becoming an improving and willing defender. He was quite competent yesterday, and I think the Cardinals were surprised that he wasn’t as soft as he’s looked at times this season.

Overall, I think the quality of the freshman play was surprisingly good for their first road trip of the year. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that without their efforts, Kentucky does not succeed in this game. That’s easy to say, but it’s also fallaciously hypothetical. Still, it encapsulates the value of their effort, which was both splendid and a little surprising.

There was a lot of talk about Kentucky’s returning players, and no doubt they mostly played well. But the youth movement at Kentucky is still alive and well, and yesterday it asserted itself at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right place. So Kentucky’s magical undefeated run continues into the SEC season. We’ll be hearing a lot about that, and you’ll be hearing people say that they can’t find a UK loss in the remaining games. Don’t buy that.

But that’s a subject for another article.