By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
As we reach the end of the decade known as the 2010’s one thing is certain: John Calipari owns the Louisville basketball team. His record against U of L is 11-2 overall, 7-1 when both teams are ranked and 4-1 when Louisville is ranked in the Top Five. Calipari is also 6-0 against the Cardinals at Rupp Arena.
And in honor of that 6-0 record at Rupp courtesy of Kentucky’s 78-70 overtime win over U of L last Saturday, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the six things I learned from the UK win.
So here goes. First of all, it seems that when the big-time stage lights go on, Tyrese Maxey takes on the persona of Superman. He flies a lot higher, shoots a lot better and looks like one of the best players in the country. Saturday against Louisville he seemed to shed his Clark Kent clothes and put on a cape to beat the Cardinals. It’s the second time he has performed as Superman. The first time was also under the bright lights against then No. 1 Michigan State in the opening game of the season at Madison Square Garden in the Champion’s Classic. In both games he averaged 26.5 points. That’s pretty hard to beat, as both Michigan State and Louisville found out.
The number two thing I found out about UK Saturday is that Kentucky big man Nick Richards has improved his mental game as much, or more, than his physical game. Against U of L Saturday he picked up some early, questionable fouls and then had to sit for awhile. Then, early in the second half he picked up his third foul and had to sit again. He returned later after Louisville had made a run to tie the game and immediately picked up his fourth foul. After a quick trip back to the bench he returned with nine minutes to go along with his four fouls. In the past in a situation like that Richards would disappear for that last nine minutes or immediately make an ill advised fifth foul. In this case he did neither. Richards stayed on the court, played inspired basketball and finished with seven consecutive points in overtime to help seal the victory for UK. His mental toughness to fight through the adversity was evident. Richards said about the team effort, “I’d probably say this is the most we’ve ever fought as a team”, and it’s the most Richards has ever mentally fought through the adversity to stay in the game.
Three, I saw that Immanuel Quickley is becoming a player that can be counted on to manufacture points in a game. He was 8-8 on the free throw line – with some of those shots coming late in the game – and he scored 18 points in the game. When Quickley scores 18 and gets to the free throw line eight times you know he is starting to figure out how to do what it takes to help his teammates win.
Fourth, Nate Sestina is a guy that brings his lunch pail every game. During a difficult second half stretch of the game with Richards on the bench in foul trouble Sestina reminded me of the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes fame. He was everywhere, rebounding, fighting for loose balls, working under the basket to score. Whatever the team needed he was providing trying to push UK over the finish line. Those types of plays, although they don’t always show up in the box score, help win ball games.
Fifth, I found out that the only player that can stop EJ Montgomery is EJ Montgomery. He came out of high school as a five star forward rated as high as sixth best player in the country, he has tremendous athleticism, a soft touch shooting the ball and is 6’ 10” tall. With all that talent it still seems like he can’t make the transition from a guy that is on the floor to give his teammates a few minutes rest to a player that should be dominating at his position every game. Maybe one day he will be able to overcome his own limitations that keep him from competing one hundred percent of the time but unfortunately that time was not Saturday against U of L.
Sixth, and last, we found out that Louisville’s head coach Chris Mack, like his counterpart U of L Football Coach Scott Satterfield, doesn’t know when to take his loss, keep his mouth shut and go home. When asked about Kentucky’s in game offensive execution down the stretch Mack said, “I want to say this in a respectful way: they don’t run a whole lot.” How can any good come from that comment?
First of all it’s not respectful in that situation and secondly that comment makes you look stupid as a coach. Mack is basically saying, “they do nothing and we still couldn’t stop it.” That comment seems to insult yourself as a coach and the ability of your players. As I said before, take your whipping and go home. Work harder at recruiting and developing your players for next season but don’t comment on the other coach’s ability to coach the game. It looks petty.
With all that being said this past decade looks like a decade for the Cats. They dominated U of L in basketball whether Rick Pitino or Chris Mack was the coach. They beat U of L in the regular season and they beat them in the NCAA tournament. Some years they beat them twice. They beat them at Rupp and they beat them at the Yum Center and they beat them on a neutral court.
It’s not hard to see the theme here — UK Basketball was a winner almost every time they played Louisville.
So going forward, as UK Basketball starts up their SEC season soon, it will be interesting to see if the lights are bright enough in the SEC games to get these guys to play like they did against Michigan State and U of L. If they are, look out! If they’re not, it might be an interesting SEC season.