When asked to explain the plan to defend Kentucky big man Bam Adebayo, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino quipped, “Well, obviously, it wasn’t to back up and let him dunk on you.”
But that’s what happened more than once Wednesday night. The problem for Kentucky, which lost 73-70, was that it didn’t happen more often.
“Bam should have been getting the ball,” UK Coach John Calipari said. Instead, “we’re taking step-back, cross-over, jack-up (shots).”
When asked if he reminded the players to get the ball to Adebayo, Calipari said, “We didn’t have 32 huddles. But any huddle we had, I talked about it. I talked about it at halftime.”
Point guard De’Aaron Fox said he and his teammates were not purposefully trying not to pass the ball to Adebayo.
“We were looking for him,” he said. “Sometimes, you don’t have an angle for a pass. We just kept encouraging him, and trying to get him the ball.”
Adebayo, who came within a rebound of a double-double (11 points, nine rebounds), defended his teammates.
“You know, I’m not the only person on the team,” he said. “We’ve got four other guys out there trying to make plays. So I’m not mad at my teammate who tries to make a play.”
Calipari blamed himself for players straying from the game plan or his direct instruction both offensively and defensively.
“If they’re playing this way, I’ve accepted it,” he said. “That’s why it’s my fault. And I told them in there (the locker room): ‘When we tell you to do something, if you don’t do it, you’re coming out.’ ... It’s the easiest way. The bench is my friend.”
Adebayo disagreed with the idea that the coach should be blamed for a lack of discipline.
“That’s more so our fault because, you know, we’re players,” he said. “So the discipline is all our fault. It’s not his. He just takes it on himself to take it off us. It was our fault.”
In a five-day period, Kentucky played two grinding, possession-by-possession games against teams ranked in the top 10.
UK traveled to Las Vegas to play North Carolina on Saturday. When asked if fatigue might have been a factor, Calipari did not reject the notion.
“It might,” he said.
Fox and Adebayo did not reject the notion, but stayed true to the sporting maxim of not making excuses.
“It’s always going to be difficult,” Fox said. “You know, the time change. It was a three-hour time change.”
With that said, Fox added, “I won’t say it’s difficult because a lot of teams are doing it. You can’t just throw travel into play when all teams in the country are traveling (and) playing basketball.”
Adebayo said players have an obligation to overcome fatigue.
“You know, you’ve got to play,” he said. “You’ve just got to play. You’ve got to play through it. You’ve got to fight through fatigue. I fought through it.”
After the game, Kentucky’s players began a Christmas break. De’Aaron Fox said the plan was to return to campus Monday to begin preparation for the Southeastern Conference opener at Ole Miss on Thursday.
Of Calipari’s postgame comments to the players, Fox said, “He just talked about the discipline problem. Other than that, it’s time to go enjoy Christmas with your family. And we’ll be back on the 26th ready to work.”
Adebayo said he looked forward to the holiday break.
“I wish I could have got the win,” he said, “but everybody loves their family, so I’m looking forward to seeing my mom and seeing my family, and (then) getting in the gym with my brothers.”
Calipari tried out a Christmas-themed quip.
“Big win for them,” he said. “They’ll have a better Christmas than us.”
The postgame news conference remained quiet.
“No one laughs?” Calipari said of the laugh line that fell flat. “Is everybody mourning?”
Flexible at Xmas
Doug Barnes, then an assistant UK coach, recalled how the Kentucky-Louisville game complicated holiday travel plans in 1986.
The UK coaches had made arrangements for the players to go home for Christmas, then return in time to prepare for a Dec. 27 game at Louisville.
Subsequently, then-UK coach Eddie Sutton learned that Louisville Coach Denny Crum would not give his players a holiday break.
“So Coach comes in and says, ‘We’ve got to change everybody’s plans,’” Barnes said.
After finding it all but impossible to change so many plane tickets, the staff convinced Sutton to let the players go home.
UK’s 85-51 victory made putting Christmas first seem wise.
For Louisville, No. 6 UK was the first of four straight opponents ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 this week.
The Cards play No. 12 Virginia, No. 16 Indiana and No. 25 Notre Dame in their next three games. Five of U of L’s next seven opponents were ranked. No. 5 Duke ends that challenging portion of the schedule.
U of L Coach Rick Pitino saw a seismic shift in pace of play competing against Kentucky and then Virginia a week later.
“Ping-pong match to life and death with every possession,” Pitino said.
‘It was great’
Calipari was gracious in defeat.
“Congratulations to Louisville and Rick (Pitino),” he said in concluding his postgame news conference. “Great game. Great job. Great environment. It was great.”
Kentucky sought a fifth straight victory against Louisville. That had happened only once in the on-and-mostly-off history of the series: 1916 through 1951. ... UK scored its second-fewest points of the season. The Cats scored 69 in beating Michigan State. The 70 points against U of L were 25.2 fewer than UK’s average going into the game.