When Kentucky and Louisville meet in Rupp Arena on Saturday in our state’s annual men’s hoops Armageddon, one major aspect of the rivalry will be opposite what it has been in recent years.
For once, two of the most lethal “one-and-done” players in the game could be in Cardinals red and black.
The additions of fifth-year graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis to the Louisville roster moved Rick Pitino to joke in the preseason that “I’m going into one-and-done mode now. I never thought I would do that.”
The twist is that, unlike John Calipari’s reliance on freshman players who play one year at Kentucky and then turn pro, Lee and Lewis are taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allows players with both remaining eligibility and a college degree to transfer without sitting out a year.
A season ago, Lee and Lewis were big fish in the mid-major pond. At Drexel (11-19), Lee was the nation’s fourth-leading scorer (21.4 points a game) and an All-Colonial Athletic Association first-team choice.
For Cleveland State (15-11), Lewis (15.8 points) was a first-team Horizon League selection. He turned heads in The Ville last year by dropping 24 points on Pitino’s Cardinals in a 45-33 U of L victory in which almost nobody else could score.
Last summer, both went seeking a bigger stage — and a chance to win. At U of L, they’ve found both. As No. 16 Louisville (9-1) has gotten off to a strong start (albeit against a mostly pillow-soft schedule), the reviews on Pitino’s “one-and-dones” have been glowing.
Around the Cardinals program, the adjectives one hears applied to Lee and Lewis are humble and hungry.
“It’s definitely been more than I expected,” Lewis said of playing at U of L. “It’s an unbelievable feeling being here. I’m very grateful.”
The value to U of L of two physically mature, fifth-year senior standouts was on vivid display Saturday in the Cardinals’ 78-56 pasting of Western Kentucky. After being down 34-16 at halftime, Western began half two with a 19-8 run to pull within 42-35.
A nervous murmur ran through what had been a sleepy holiday season crowd of 21,606 in the KFC Yum Center.
Lee and Lewis then did what you expect of veteran college standouts: They took over the game.
The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Lee, a Baltimore product, converted a conventional three-point play, then set Ray Spalding up for a dunk with a nifty pass. Lee then drained a trey from the left wing and made a pair of foul shots.
Lewis, 6-2 and a muscular 185 pounds, picked up from there. The Garfield Heights, Ohio, native scored back-to-back layups off hard drives to the basket.
Together, the duo had driven a stake through WKU comeback dreams by having a hand in all the points in a 14-3 U of L run.
Said Lewis: “Being experienced players like we are, we’ve been in these type of situations and we know what our team needs and when our team needs it.”
Said Lee: “I would not necessarily say we tried to take over the game. I would say we tried to execute the plan and we know what our role in that plan is.”
So far on the season, Lee is averaging 18.3 points and shooting 51.7 percent from the floor; Lewis is at 13.8 points while shooting 47.1 and 41.3 on three-point shots.
“Trey is a hell of a scorer,” Lee said. “His stats from his whole career speak to that.”
Though they have been teammates for only 10 official college games, Lewis says he and Lee have bonded.
“The way we complement each other so well is we don’t care who gets the credit,” Lewis said. “When Damion hits a three, it’s like I hit a three — and vice versa.”
If you think Lewis and Lee’s big starts are mostly a pair of mid-major stars feasting on a Louisville non-conference schedule rated 318th toughest (out of 351) in the country by Kenpom.com, you might want to look at what happened when U of L visited current No. 1 Michigan State on Dec. 2.
In a narrow 71-67 Louisville loss, Lee hit eight of 15 shots and had 23 points; Lewis went 7-for-13 and scored 21.
Neither figures to be rattled by what will be a rowdy Rupp Arena on Saturday. Lewis has already played in Rupp once, scoring 15 points and helping Cleveland State put a scare in UK early in the 2013-14 season before falling 68-61.
So it will be fascinating to see if Pitino’s version of “one-and-dones” help the Cards — losers of seven of their last eight against the Cats — at last turn the rivalry tables on UK.
Louisville at Kentucky
When: Noon Saturday