Early in the annual Kentucky-Louisville men’s basketball grudgefest, John Calipari and the UK brain trust detected a pattern within the action.
When Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans put their shoulders down and drove the basketball, they kept ending up at the U of L rim.
“I was like ‘Holy jeez, maybe we can drive these guys,’” Calipari said later. “I didn’t think (coming into the game) we could.”
It turned out, Chris Mack’s first Kentucky-Louisville showdown as the Cardinals’ head man looked an awful lot like most of the other Cats-Cards throwdowns of the Calipari era.
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As was so often the case when Rick Pitino was working the U of L sidelines vs. Calipari, Louisville (9-4) once again could not match Kentucky’s combination of length and talent.
Getting a combined 50 points from freshmen perimeter players Herro (24), Johnson (15) and Hagans (11), No. 16 UK (10-2) whipped U of L 71-58 Saturday afternoon before 20,882 fans in the KFC Yum Center.
“Our length kind of bothered them,” Calipari said. “And our length should bother a lot of people.”
It was the 10th Kentucky win over Louisville in 12 games since Calipari came to UK as head coach in 2009-10.
Louisville backers hope Mack, the former Xavier coach, will alter the competitive arc of the commonwealth’s marquee men’s hoops rivalry. In nine games as Xavier’s head man, Mack bested archrival Cincinnati six times.
On Saturday, UK delivered a hard message to the new U of L head man about how difficult it is going to be to master a rivalry with the Wildcats.
Mack’s “pack line defense” is designed to make opponents shoot jump shots over it and not give up shots in the lane.
The 6-foot-6 Johnson, 6-5 Herro and 6-3 Hagans instead “played over the top” of a smallish U of L perimeter that featured two 6-footers, two 6-2 players and one 6-5 wing.
“Our length, being able to play without them disrupting us, and then being able to go at them, it put them in kind of a funk,” Herro said.
As the game played out, Hagans said he was not surprised he could get to the rim on U of L.
“Not really,” he said. “At the beginning of the game, I was driving and they were playing me for the pass. When I came out of the game, Coach told me to ‘Attack, attack.’ And that’s what I did.”
Defensively, taller UK harried Louisville into a horrid 10-for-31 shooting performance in half two.
“Offensively, we were out of sorts,” Mack said. “A lot of that has to do with their length, their athleticism.”
Besides being small, the Louisville roster lacks the depth of talent it takes to stress Kentucky.
Where UK has a team filled with five-star prospects, the U of L roster has been cobbled together in the aftermath of a pair of highly-publicized recruiting scandals and with three coaches — Pitino, interim head man David Padgett and Mack — in the past two seasons.
That’s why the Cardinals got major minutes Saturday from transfers from mid-major programs Samford, Richmond and UNC-Asheville.
To his credit, the Samford transfer, ex-Henry Clay High School standout Christen Cunningham, was Louisville’s best player Saturday, hitting eight of 14 shots and going for 20 points and four assists.
The fact nevertheless remains, Louisville is not going to become more competitive with Kentucky until its rosters begin to look more like UK’s.
Which is not news to Mack.
The new Louisville coach’s well-regarded 2019 signing class — ranked No. 5 in the country by 24/7 Sports — features six players, all between 6-4 and 6-10.
Playing with the players he had available Saturday, Mack fleetingly befuddled Kentucky in the second half by unveiling a 1-3-1 zone.
Quicker than you could say “unhappy West Virginia 2010 flashback,” the UK stampede to the rim was slowed by Mack’s zone.
“We were trying to get, maybe, something that led us defense-to-offense,” Mack said. “Maybe we get a deflection, maybe we get a couple of open-court layups. I’ll be honest, they got some open (three-pointers) against our 1-3-1, they just didn’t make them.”
After starting the season absorbing a shocking 118-84 drubbing by Duke, UK with back-to-back wins over North Carolina and U of L now appears headed in a positive direction.
“We’re getting better and better,” Calipari said.
Louisville backers have reason to feel positive about what Mack has so far done, too. Even Calipari began his post-game news conference praising “the job Chris has done with this team.”
However, at least for now, the new boss in the UK-U of L head-to-head is very much the same as the old boss.