LEXINGTON — The Kentucky Wildcats’ 73-66 win over the Louisville Cardinals Saturday took the pressure off of everyone’s New Year’s Eve plans around here, because nothing can happen Tuesday night to top what happened at Rupp Arena Saturday.
In 40 minutes, coach John Calipari’s Wildcats, 12-3, went from team disappointment to team with as good a shot as anyone to win the national championship in men’s basketball.
Then, on Sunday, coach Matthew Mitchell’s women’s team showed at least glimpses of Final Four capability with a 109-46 win over Grambling State. The UK women improved to 12-1 now, with the only loss coming last week to No. 2-ranked Duke.
Still, Cal’s Wildcats understandably were the story of the weekend.
This Kentucky team is very young — Calipari said it’s his youngest bunch in his five years here, which is saying something — so there promises to be more down periods mixed in with the up times moving into Southeastern Conference play.
But the bottom line for the UK men is that Saturday’s showing provided proof that when the Wildcats are emotionally engaged, they can live up to the pre-season No. 1 ranking.
In addition, they showed that they can still function at a high level when freshman sensation Julius Randle is on the bench.
Randle was a beast in the first half against the Cardinals, scoring all 17 of his points in that stretch, but in the second half when leg cramps limited him to four ineffective minutes, Kentucky circled the wagons and managed to win anyway.
Imagine a game where Randle plays like he did in the first half, and his teammates play like they did in the second?
All this came against an 11-2 Louisville team that could very well see Kentucky again, hopefully in the Final Four this time.
The Cardinals have a dynamic backcourt in senior Russ Smith and junior Chris Jones, but are struggling big-time to find the right combination at the wings and at center.
But Louisville has some two months to find the formula, and they have the coach in Rick Pitino to do it.
The hope for the blue and white side is that by tournament time the Wildcats will have found stability in terms of both effort and production and improve off Saturday’s superb result.
The first step for Kentucky will be Jan. 8 with a home date (8 p.m. on the SEC TV Network) against lowly Mississippi State.
It’s probably a good thing to have 10 days off from game action after the win over U of L, though Calipari plans to make good use of the time, threatening to work his players three times a day with school out of session for the holidays.
Now, as far as the Kentucky women go, their pre-conference slate has positioned them for a potential No. 1 seed in their NCAA Tournament if they can be as competitive in the SEC as they have been the past two seasons.
The Wildcats have little chance to win a national title in a women’s world, with Connecticut looking dominant, and Stanford and Duke probably a step better at this point, and a few others, including Louisville, Notre Dame and Tennessee, being at least potentially a stumbling block for Mitchell’s UK bunch.
Still, the fact that Kentucky is likely to start their NCAA run with two home games — Lexington has been chosen as an NCAA regional site, and in the women’s game, you can play NCAA Tournament games at home — certainly helps.
The Wildcats would then likely go to Louisville’s Yum! Center for a regional semifinal and final, where they could very well see Louisville.
Kentucky got by Louisville, 69-64, Dec. 1.
Mitchell’s team has had to go East for NCAA play the past two years, getting shellacked by Connecticut in the Elite 8 on both occasions.
In Sunday’s win over Grambling State, the Wildcats showed their versatility, putting six players in double-digit scoring, while dominating on the boards, 57-34, and forcing 34 turnovers.
Junior swing player Bria Goss has stepped forward in recent weeks as a leader, and she led Sunday with 23 points and eight rebounds.
Freshman guard Linnae Harper, who is going to be flat-out great sooner rather than later, added 15 points and seven rebounds.
Sophomore guard Janee Thompson added 13 points; senior center Samari Walker added 11 points and seven boards; senior guard-forward Kastine Evans had 11 points and five rebounds, and freshman wing player Makayla Epps chipped in 10 points and seven rebounds to round out the leaders.
The UK women open SEC play Thursday at Alabama, and then host Florida Sunday at 3.
The Wildcats have been playing very well in the pre-season despite missing their best player — 6-foot-3 senior center DeNesha Stallworth — for the past three weeks.
Stallworth underwent a minor knee procedure three weeks ago, and Mitchell said Sunday that he hopes to have Stallworth back, perhaps as early as the Florida game.