For the seventh time in the last eight meetings, Louisville took a loss to Kentucky, this time in a 58-50 final. The Cardinals gave a great defensive effort, but once again the Louisville offense was shaky. Just as in their victory over Ohio State in the Big 10-ACC challenge, the Cardinals went through stretches where their halfcourt offense was not at all effective.
It’s easy to point straight away at the inefficiencies of the Louisville guards. Terry Rozier was only 5-18, Chris Jones 3-15, and Wayne Blackshear 2-9, but the Cards suffered deeper than just by missing shots. It was the type of shots the players missed. A lot of looks were wide open, the kinds of shots you have to knock down to beat a top-flight team such as Kentucky. The Cardinal guards, especially Rozier, could not make an open look. The Cards were getting shots they wanted, shots that could have won the game, but none of them fell. On that end it was frustrating.
On the other side of the frustration hill were some of the shots Louisville settled for. Blackshear, Jones and Rozier seemed to settle on whatever mid-range jump shot was the first available. That was a recipe for disaster. Kentucky was able to challenge a number of those shots. The Cats were able to get the Cards’ guards into the situations where the lower percentage shot was the enticing one to take, and the guards obliged. The Cardinals were 9 of 35, 25.7%, on two-point jumpers.
What was also frustrating for UL was the fact that it could not convert Kentucky turnovers into points. Louisville finished with only 14 points on 18 UK turnovers. Meanwhile, Kentucky punished Louisville for 16 points off 9 Cardinal turnovers. This was a huge deciding factor in the Kentucky victory.
Louisville is a horrible three-point shooting team. The Cardinals make only 29 percent of their perimeter shots. That ranks 301 on Ken Pom. That deficiency showed against the Kentucky defense again in this game. UL managed to make 3 of 14 attempts. The only two makes from three-point land in the second half were very late in the game to boot. Jones and Rozier each went 1 of 5, Blackshear 0-2.
I don’t mean to fully put blame for the loss on the Louisville guards — this is a product of their system. Rick Pitino has known all season that his team has major issues when they can’t get the tempo sped up and when his team has to bear down on offense. The Cards seem to have no rhyme or reason for some of the things they do. This was something that hurt Louisville last year as well. This time, there are no All-Americans like Russ Smith and no Final Four MVPs like Luke Hancock to bail the team out when this get hairy. This is something the coaching staff needs to fix before ACC play.
There is really no excuse for Montrezl Harrell to attempt only nine field goals. He needed more touches. Now having said that, the Kentucky front line was pretty great. There were only 3 blocks recorded by UK, all by Marcus Lee, but the Cats were great at denying the post. Harrell was only able to post up on Lee once or twice. A lot of the work Harrell seemed to do was off offensive rebounds, of which Harrell had 6. There was a time late in the game when Harrell visibly appeared frustrated after a wild shot attempt.
There was really no excuse for Louisville to have 1 assist. The only assist came at the 11:08 mark of the first half. There was way too much dribbling by the guards at times. There was also the fact that Louisville missed 43 field goal attempts. That hurts. To have 1 assist on 15 made field goals is a very bad ratio. It shows the kind of decisions the Cardinals made.
Free throw shooting didn’t help Louisville either. 17-24 is decent but glaring in a game where you lose by 8. The biggest misses came from Blackshear. Down 8, Blackshear was fouled on a 3-point attempt. He would miss the first two free throws before making the third. That was pretty much that.
One last thing that seemed to hurt the Cardinal effort were some tired legs. Kentucky was fazed by Louisville’s first-half defense to the point of committing 10 turnovers. Kentucky did turn the ball over 8 times in the second half, but only three times during the last 10 minutes that mattered. A turnover occurred with 12 seconds left in regulation, when the game was over for all intents and purposes. Louisville’s defense stopped being as strong, Kentucky’s shots got a little better. Tyler Ulis was a huge factor in this. Ulis went off for 12 points in the second half (he had a team high 14), getting any shot he wanted. Ulis’s only assist of the half was to set up an Aaron Harrison triple to pretty much ice the game. Relying on Rozier and Jones to play 37 minutes each and keep up with the fresh Kentucky legs proved to be a step too far. The only points the Cardinal bench provided were off a Shaqquan Aaron three-ball, on which Jones assisted.
Louisville’s defense held Kentucky to under a point per possession. The Cardinals managed to turn Kentucky over nearly 32 % of the time. This was a game where Louisville just couldn’t squeeze the opportunity to win. Louisville had all the tools to beat Kentucky. Maybe on a different night the Cards do. This is a loss the Cardinals and Cardinal fans will look back on and stew over. This could have been the best chance a team had at beating Kentucky during the regular season. Louisville couldn’t capitalize.
If anything, this game could be a great source of motivation for the team the rest of the way. If it can score, Louisville can beat anyone. When they Cards can’t, they are still really damn good because of the defense. Rick Pitino needs to find a way to bridge the seemingly gigantic gulf between the power of the offense and the tenaciousness of the defense to get this team ready for situations like this when they rise up again. One thing we know for sure about college basketball is that issues that plague a team will plague them until that team fixes them… or that team loses in March.
Photo via USA Today Sports – Jamie Rhodes