On Saturday in Lexington the 49th chapter of the Battle of the Bluegrass was written. For the 34th time it was Kentucky who walked away with the victory. The Wildcats now lead the all-time series 34-15. The Cardinals are now 1-8 against their rivals since John Calipari was hired as their coach and a big reason why is because Kentucky has always done a good job of making sure they win the home games in this rivalry. They did that again on Saturday and to them go the credit.
Our Cardinals lost the battle yesterday and it was a battle, but proved that they do have enough weapons to go to war in the ACC and make a run in March. One and done is always in the discussion when you play Kentucky, but on Saturday it was a done and one who was the best player on the floor. Damion Lee has led the Cardinals all season averaging around 18 points a game and on Saturday he led all scorers in the game with 27 points. In one of the toughest places to go into and perform he outperformed everybody. That last shot didn’t fall but a lot of them are going to this season.
Lee is a great weapon to have going forward but there is also plenty of other ammunition at Coach Pitino’s disposal. The other done and one guy Trey Lewis has also been a big scoring threat this season for the Cardinals. He’s averaged around 15 points a game this season and had 15 on Saturday. The poise and maturity is what stood out the most. At times early in the game on Saturday you could see that deer in the headlights look in every player on the court for the Cardinals except for Lewis. He held things together while everyone else settled in. Having a guy on this team with so much composure is going to be huge down the stretch. Some of those gyms in the ACC are going to be just as loud as or louder than Rupp Arena.
Rebounding is vital especially when you go on the road and in tournament play. Chinanu Onuaku has led the Cardinals in rebounding all season averaging around 8 a game. And he out-rebounded every player on the floor on Saturday with 10 helping the Cardinals out-rebound Kentucky 39-29. Onuaku was clearly a force down low in the game and had his way when he fought for the position. If Onuaku decides that he wants to be elite then he will be. The pedigree is there and the ability and talent are as well. The only thing that can hold Chinanu back is Chinanu. I really believe he will be one of the best big men in the country before this season is over and who doesn’t love that granny shot.
The Louisville bench had scored over 350 points going into the game on Saturday and outscored UK’s bench 19-18. Donovan Mitchell was excellent and was the spark plug that ignited a comeback from 16 down. He was making big-time plays on both the offensive and defensive side of the floor. He is a superior athlete and proved he is ready to give quality minutes in big games moving forward. I was also really impressed with Jaylen Johnson. He keeps getting better. He ran the floor well and has that big man passing ability that coach Pitino loves. And you just can’t say enough about the development of Matz Stockman and Anas Mahmoud. These guys will be two of the premier big men in the ACC next year if they continue down that improvement path. And they will provide quality depth this season moving forward.
There are other guys on the roster that didn’t really bring it on Saturday but who will play a vital role in the coming weeks. The Louisville guys Quentin Snider and Ray Spalding weren’t effective against Kentucky but they both have the ability to have major impacts on a game. Snider’s ability to run the offense and Spalding’s length and athleticism are big time attributes. Deng Adel is just getting back off injury and will be a force on that wing soon enough. Mango will be back in around 6 to 8 weeks hungrier than ever to make another NCAA run.
I’m still very confident in how this season will turn out and I think this early loss in December will give this team a wakeup call. Where Calipari relies more on talent, Pitino has utilized development and his coaching ability to make Louisville successful. He will figure out how to best use the pieces on this team and the team will figure out how to use what they have to their advantage. We have got the nucleus for another Championship run and now the guys just have to keep fighting to find a way to make it all work together. I’m very disappointed in that loss yesterday and I did take it very hard, but the college basketball season is not a sprint it’s a marathon. We got a long way to go until March.