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January 2nd, 2013

Billy Reed: Cards, Cats Both Got Something

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Billy Reed


Billy Reed: Cards, Cats Both Got Something
Wiltjer Shot UK Back Into It

U of L and Kentucky learned a lot Saturday

At just the moment in the Louisville-Kentucky basketball game when it looked as if the Cards, up by 17 early in the second, were going to kick the Cats all the way to Waddy-Peytona, the slowest guy on the floor knocked down a couple of wide-open threes and everything changed.

Big Kyle Wiltjer’s two shots gave U of L pause and UK heart. And the rest of the way, it was a matter of whether the favored Cards could stave off a rejuvenated Cats team that suddenly was playing with more pause than it had a right, given its lack of experience – as a group – in a hostile arena.

The U of L lead kept shrinking until it was finally only two measly points. All around the KFC Yum! Center, you could almost smell the mounting fear. The unthinkable – losing to John Calipari yet again – was a distinct possibility, especially considering that U of L was saddled with foul trouble.

It had been a game called much too closely, which put the Cards at a disadvantage. Given how U of L claws and scraps and grabs on its press, the Cards are not going to benefit when the officials call ticky-tacky stuff in backcourt and away from the ball.

But with the game up for grabs, the Cards refused to lose. Gorgui Dieng blocked a three. Chane Behanan got loose for a monster dunk. The Cats missed some free throws.

And finally it was time for Cards’ fans to exhale: U of L 80, UK 77.

It was a positive experience for both teams. The Cards ended their frustration against Cal’s Cats and showed that experience and togetherness count for something. The Cats played their best game of the season and showed the mental toughness that Calipari has been trying to drill into them.

For the first time, Calipari started 7-0 Willie Cauley-Stein in place of the struggling Alex Poythress. On the positive side, Cauley-Stein teamed with 7-0 Nerlens Noel to give UK the most mobile and athletic “twin towers” in college hoops. On the negative side, Cauley-Stein produced the notorious “double hat trick,” twice going 0-for-3 from the foul line.

When Poythress comes out of his freshman funk – and he will – the Cats will gallop through the Southeastern Conference. Only Florida seems capable of giving them a run for the regular-season and tournament titles. By March 1, they will be a team that nobody in the NCAA field wants to play.

Because both teams have so much talent, the game attracted scouts from 18 NBA teams. Supposedly UK’s Noel, Poythress and Archie Godwin would be top 10 picks if the draft were held today. Cauley-Stein also could play his way into the mix. For U of L, Behanan, Dieng, Behanan, forward Wayne Blackshear, and guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith lead the parade of potential future pros.

Smith has to be intriguing to the scouts. He’s neither a classic shooting guard nor a classic point. He’s relatively small. But he’s quick, has a nose for the ball, and knows how to make things happen. Mostly, he’s bothered neither by mistake nor by Pitino’s screaming. He has that Brooklyn playground mentality that makes him compete as if his next meal is on the line.

Much has been made about how unconventional Smith is, but that’s mostly an indication of how the game has changed in the last 30 years. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, the best time of all for creativity and freedom of expression, Smith would have been right at home playing against the lines of James “Fly” Williams, William “Bird” Everitt, and Dwight “Bo Pete” Lamar.

But the coaches, bless their controlling hearts, couldn’t abide basketball as a players’ game. So they did their darnedest to drain all the creativity out of the game and turn the players into set pieces on the chess board. That’s why Russ is out of place. He’s a 1960s player trapped in today’s rigid game.

With so much talent on the floor, it was odd that the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer would make the baskets that changed the game’s tenor. He’s a good college player on a team of future pros. He’s slow and he can’t shoot. The biggest indictment of his pro potential is that he might be the first Calipari recruit to stay in school and graduate.

But if you leave him open, he can drill the three-pointer until the bars at Fourth Street Live close. He’s a Big Ten type of guy playing on Team Dribble Drive. You can use a sun dial to clock him running baseline to baseline.

Nevertheless, nobody on UK’s team fulfilled his role better than did Wiltjer in the U of L game. The Cards left him open and he made them pay. After his second trey, you could almost hear the air leaving U of L’s balloon.

The Cards needed this scare to put them in the right frame of mind for the Big East. They are a very good team, one of the nation’s best, but they also have holes that need to be plugged before the calendar flips to March.

 

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