LEXINGTON — A month ago, the hopes of Kentucky — the 2012 national champ — and Louisville — the 2013 title winner — to win this year’s national title looked dim.
Coach John Calipari’s Wildcats looked overmatched defensively by ordinary Southeastern Conference offenses, primarily because of a lack of quickness in the backcourt. Guards with even average quickness were flying by Kentucky’s guards consistently. It was a matador defense for Kentucky on the perimeter, in other words.
Worse, the Wildcats appeared frequently disinterested on both ends of the court, a problem I sensed was due more to a lack of experience than a lack of character.
Coach Rick Pitino’s Cardinals, meanwhile, had just lost (finally) former star forward Chane Behanan, and redshirt freshman center Mangok Mathieng was coming along too slowly to be a factor, leaving the cupboard pretty bare on the front line outside of stud Montrezl Harrell.
It also didn’t help that starting guard Chris Jones was slowed by nagging injuries, putting too much of a burden at times on standout returnees like the above-mentioned Harrell, Luke Hancock and Russ Smith to carry a team that, like Kentucky, came into this season with realistic national championship expectations.
And Smith had been up and down early on, presumably because he was trying to show NBA scouts he is both a willing and able enough passer to be an effective point guard at the next level, a position where his relatively smallish height promises to land him.
The good news today is that both the Wildcats and Cardinals are working through many of these issues and rounding into the kind of teams that make each a legitimate threat to take down the nets in Dallas in April, as opposed to long shots.
A lot can still happen to change things, to be sure, but Saturday’s results for both teams reflect reason for optimism.
First, the then 11th-ranked Louisville went into Cincinnati and played the kind of lockdown defense that should keep the Cardinals in any tournament game, edging the then seventh-rated Bearcats 58-57, with Smith knocking down the game winning jump shot with 2.2 seconds left.
Louisville has won six games in a row and 10 of 11 to improve to 23-4, while Kentucky has won six of seven (losing only to No. 1 Florida) and stands at 21-6.
Four hours after Louisville’s thrilling win at Cincinnati, then 18th-ranked Kentucky hosted an LSU team with the skill set and maturity to give the Wildcats fits, and did. Kentucky had to fight with all its might, and did, outlasting the Tigers, 77-76, in overtime.
Both Kentucky and Louisville have significant areas of concern as they head into the home stretch of the regular season. The Wildcats want to avoid a team with quick guards come tournament time, and the Cardinals would still probably like to avoid a team with Kentucky’s height and shot blocking ability.
The good news is that both teams also have aces in the hole, so to speak, that could help at least neutralize their weaknesses and make them threats to make a run to the Final Four in Dallas.
For Kentucky, the Harrison twins — point guard Andrew and off guard Aaron — have improved dramatically on the offensive end. Those two repeatedly drove into the paint with success against LSU Saturday. So what does that have to do with their defense? Plenty. If the Harrisons can continue to stop and pop or drive and pop, they can easily get opposing guards in foul trouble.
The Wildcats also need a more consistent effort down low from freshman forward Julius Randle and sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein. Both have shown flashes of ability to get the ball to the basket when they want to, but neither does it consistently. I believe Randle is too unselfish, while Cauley-Stein is, well, only his hairdresser knows for sure.
Kentucky doesn’t need both Randle and Cauley-Stein to be fully engaged against most teams, but the Wildcats sure need one of them to bring their “A” game each time out.
In my heart of hearts, I still question whether Kentucky has the experience/maturity to make the kind of sustained run it will take to win an NCAA Championship. The Wildcats may get a high enough seed to have a relatively easy game in the first round (or, what the NCAA calls the second round), but from the Round of 32 on, I doubt there will be any easy ones for Kentucky.
Pitino’s Cardinals don’t have such maturity issues. In fact, Smith, Hancock and Harrell all have the ability to take a team on their backs. And if all three bring their ‘A’ game, look out.
Still, there’s, again, the pesky issue of Louisville’s thin front line.
In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t see enough games outside of games involving Kentucky to know whether there are many teams out there with the kind of size and bulk inside to give the Cards trouble, outside of UK, of course.
I do follow the game enough to know that there are no dominating teams in the men’s college game — no teams like Connecticut on the women’s side — leaving the door open for an NCAA Tournament that could be as exciting and balanced as any in recent memory.
There appear to be, in other words, a LOT of teams outside of UK and U of L dreaming lofty dreams.