By LARRY VAUGHT
LOUISVILLE — It’s not often that coaches John Calipari and Rick Pitino are going to agree on anything.
But guess what? After Louisville’s 80-77 victory over Kentucky here Saturday, they agree on not one thing, but two things.
First, both agree that No. 3 Louisville has a chance to be a special team despite squandering most of a 51-34 lead early in the second half against unranked UK.
“Hats off to them. What a good team they are,” said Calipari. “They play hard, play aggressive, play rough. Size, guard play is outstanding. There may be a better team in the country, but I’ve got to see them. When you have guard play like they have and size and toughness, this is an outstanding team.”
Pitino wouldn’t disagree in an unusual show of brotherly love between the two long-time rivals.
“I think we are playing great because we have a great backcourt,” Pitino said. “I think it is one of the premier backcourts in the country.”
Seniors Peyton Siva (19 points) and Russ Smith (21 points, three assists, three steals) are that good because they can win a game on offense or defense. And they have experienced players with size and toughness around them.
Calipari said Friday he felt Louisville was the “odds on favorite” to win the national title and certainly he saw nothing Saturday to change that opinion.
“I think he truly has respect for us. I think he likes our team,” Pitino said.
Last year Pitino got Louisville to the Final Four — where the Cards lost to UK — mainly with defense. This team has more offense and eight or nine players that can all play equally well.
But the coaches also agreed that this was a much better Kentucky team than the one that lost earlier this season to Notre Dame and Baylor.
“They are going to be an excellent basketball team,” Pitino said. “They are going to be better and better. John is the right guy to get them … he is a helluva coach.”
Pitino said while the Cards can’t match the NBA draft numbers that UK has had, this year he actually felt he had the more talented team because of Louisville’s experience.
“They will be a great team in February,” Pitino said. “I marvel at what he does with young players. Two weeks ago, quite frankly I did not think they were a very good team. Now they are a helluva team. We did a great job on their bigs. We shot 48 percent against a good defensive team.”
So why is Kentucky better than just a couple of weeks ago?
“I just saw better passing, better execution. I think they were in better shape,” Pitino said. “It takes a certain skill to coach young guys. It’s very difficult to do with a new group all the time. He (Calipari) does it better than all of us could do. I wouldn’t want to do it, but he does it better than everybody.”
Kentucky had 15 turnovers against Louisville’s pressure that turned into 19 points. But the Cats compensated with 14 points off nine Louisville turnovers. Kentucky outrebounded the more experienced, more physical Cardinals 39-36. UK shot 58.1 percent (18-for-31) the second half.
Point guard Ryan Harrow had his best game at Kentucky — 17 points (6-for-15 shooting), five rebounds, three assists, two steals and no turnovers in 39 minutes. Kyle Wiltjer showed those who thought he couldn’t be a factor in a game like this what he could do with 14 points (4-for-7 on 3-pointers) and three rebounds in only 19 minutes. Surprise starter Willie Cauley-Stein had six points, eight rebounds and three blocks. The only thing he couldn’t do was make free throws (0-for-4) but his hustle and intensity helped UK immensely.
Archie Goodwin was sporadic but had 22 points on 8-for-15 shooting and has the same kind of fearlessness that John Wall and Brandon Knight had. He made five turnovers, but he’s not afraid to try and make a play and Calipari said he’s getting better. Nerlens Noel had eight points, eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals in his normal stat-stuffing game.
Kentucky continue to struggle to get production from Alex Poythress (seven points, five rebounds) and Julius Mays (1-for-8 shooting).
While there’s no way Calipari likes losing to any team, but especially Louisville, he complimented his team for the way it played after getting down 51-34.
“We did get better. Ryan is better. Archie is still turning the ball over and is a little out of control at times, but he is still making plays,” Calipari said. “We are not getting any production out of Julius and Alex, but we are hanging in. Willies was good. I thought he did a terrific job. Nerlens broke down a couple times. Ryan, he did great. I grabbed him afterward and told him that is where I wanted him at the beginning of the year. Now where do we go from here?”
That’s the big question for both teams. Louisville could well be headed to another Final Four with this defense and better offense. But UK showed it’s too early to write off this season even if the Cats will go into Southeastern Conference play unranked. Kentucky finally took a punch and fought back. It hung with a physial team on the road.
The Cats won’t play a team this good the rest of the regular season and if they can play the way they did the final 15 minutes the rest of the season, this loss at Louisville could turn out to be a season-saving event for the Cats — and probably both Calipari and Pitino would agree on that, too.