John Clay

Kentucky looks better than Louisville, but can the Cats go back-to-back?

It’s UK-U of L basketball week again, and for a good part of December I thought had the 2018-19 version of our annual in-state hoops war all figured out.

Then the weekend happened.

Friday night, I was at the KFC Yum Center in Louisville to check out the Cardinals. Neither new U of L coach Chris Mack nor I liked what we saw. The ‘Ville was outplayed in the first half by a 4-7 Robert Morris before taking control in the second half for a 73-59 victory.

“They played harder than we did,” said an obviously irritated Mack after the game. “I’ve got to do a better job.”

Saturday afternoon, I was at the United Center in Chicago to check out the Cats. Against No. 9-ranked North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic, I could barely believe what I saw. Effort. Execution. Overall excellence. By game’s end, Kentucky had spoiled Roy Williams’ Christmas on the way to an 80-72 victory.

“I told the team, ‘We’re not the same team we were two weeks ago,’” said Calipari afterward. “And hopefully we won’t be the same team two weeks from now.”

A few days ago, I was all set to pick the Cards over the Cats on Dec. 29. It’s a Louisville home game, after all. And you have to be impressed with the job Mack has done since arriving from Xavier. U of L upset No. 9 Michigan State in Louisville and nearly toppled Indiana in Bloomington.

Kentucky’s PJ Washington celebrated a dunk Saturday during the CBS Sports Classic against North Carolina. Alex Slitz

Meanwhile, Kentucky was still a team in search of itself. That opening-night drubbing by Duke had played on the young Cats’ psyches. There were questions about the team’s talent level, its chemistry, its toughness. All questions that lacked clear answers.

Then Saturday happened. Remember, North Carolina was fresh off an impressive 103-90 win over visiting and then fourth-ranked Gonzaga. After the Tar Heels lost to Texas and Michigan, Gonzaga was UNC’s figure-it-all-out game. The Heels hit on all cylinders. They moved into the AP Top 10.

They couldn’t go back-to-back, however. Kentucky had much to do with that. Ashton Hagans had much to do with that. UK’s devilish defender of a point guard recorded a ridiculous eight steals. Keldon Johnson scored 21 points. Reid Travis added 20. PJ Washington just missed a triple double, scoring 11 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing eight assists.

Better still, Calipari’s youngsters showed backbone. When Carolina cut the lead to 47-43 with 15:45 left, UK’s Tyler Herro drained a three-pointer from the right wing. Travis followed with a rebound basket and the Cats’ advantage was back to nine. When UNC got back to within 66-60, Hagans executed a stealth backcourt swipe which lead to Washington knocking home a three from the top of the key to make it 69-60.

Saturday, UK played with the sense of urgency that had been lacking in previous games. That’s all part of the growing process. “We’re an inexperienced team,” reminded Calipari on Saturday, before adding with a sly grin, “with a graduate transfer.”

Next step: Can Kentucky do what North Carolina failed to do? Can the Cats go back-to-back? Saturday was just one game. A big game. A very big game. But young teams are prone to follow highs with lows. Consistency is what it’s about. That’s a coach-speak cliche. And also true.

When it comes to UK-U of L, Kentucky looked like the better team over the weekend. It was more impressive against more impressive competition. But it was also just one game. And one game is not necessarily a reliable predictor of what will happen in the next game. Especially a rivalry game.

“A nasty rivalry,” was Louisville sophomore Jordan Nwora’s description when asked Friday night what he would tell U of L’s newcomers about the Kentucky game.

“A fan told me they didn’t care if we lost every game as long as we beat Louisville,” said Herro, who as a Wisconsin native will experience UK-U of L for the first time.

That’s not really true, of course, but then who knows what surprises the next weekend will bring.

Next game

No. 19 Kentucky at Louisville

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

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