Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over Louisville

In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky’s 71-58 win over Louisville on Saturday at the KFC Yum Center:

1. The outcome was methodical proof of superiority.

This particular edition of UK-U of L was almost completely lacking in surprises. Coming in, Kentucky was believed to be the better team. The Cats were a modest three-point favorite. And UK proved to be the better team, leading from practically start to finish. U of L’s last lead was at the 19:34 mark of the first half. From the 17:58 mark to the final horn, Kentucky’s lead was anywhere from nine to 15 points.

There are obvious reasons for all this. John Calipari is now 10-2 against Louisville as the Kentucky coach. He is an established coach who has been in charge of the Big Blue Nation’s forces since 2009-10. He’s won a national title, been to a boatload of Final Fours and — recent losses nonwithstanding — recruits like few others.

Chris Mack is in his first season as the Louisville coach. He inherited an undermanned roster from a program already on probation and possibly headed for more sanctions. Mack did a terrific job in his nine seasons at Xavier. He’ll do a terrific job at Louisville. It will take time. And in the meantime, just as they did against Michigan State, the Cards will beat some teams they are not supposed to beat.

Kentucky was not one of those teams. Tyler Herro scored a career-high 24 points. Ashton Hagans starred again. PJ Washington grabbed eight rebounds, blocked four shots and made three assists. Keldon Johnson scored 15 points. You get the picture.

2. Suddenly, the point guard position looks much different.

I admit it. I was skeptical. Through the first month of the season, I wasn’t particularly impressed with Immanuel Quickley or Ashton Hagans, UK’s two freshman point guards. Quickly appeared erratic. Hagans appeared as if maybe, just maybe, he needed another year of prep basketball after re-classifying to join the class of 2018.

I was wrong. Especially over the last two games, Hagans has proven himself to be up to the challenge. Start with his mind-boggling eight steals in the Cats’ 80-72 win over North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic last Saturday. Against Lousville, Hagans scored 11 points, dished three assists and made three steals.

It’s those steals that rattle the opposition. On several occasions, Hagans seem to appear from nowhere to make a theft. And often those steals have turned into scores at the other end, the sort of scores that deflate opponents.

With Calipari’s teams, the point guard spot has always been of vital importance. It might be too early to make any final conclusions. Still, things look much different now at that position than they did a month ago.

3. Now it’s on to a ‘ridiculous’ SEC.

Yeah, Happy New Year, Cats. You just beat North Carolina. You just beat archrival Louisville. You’ve just turned around a fan base that had its doubts about your talent and prospects. Your prize? A tough conference slate, starting Saturday at Alabama.

“The whole league is ridiculous,” Calipari said Saturday. “And you won’t believe this, but we’re playing the top-five teams in the conference twice.”

That’s a bit of an overstatement, but maybe not as much as you might think. The Cats do play Tennessee, Florida, Auburn, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt twice. Tennessee, Auburn and Mississippi State are all three really good.

You already know about Tennessee, which beat the Cats twice last year and has a win over Gonzaga this season. You know about Bruce Pearl and Auburn, which beat UK last season and is 10-2 this season. The team you might not know about is Mississippi State, which is 11-1 after a 103-81 drubbing of BYU on Saturday.

As it has shown the past two Saturdays, Kentucky isn’t bad either. Luckily, the Cats appear to have regained their confidence just in time for the 18-game league schedule — plus the SEC/Big 12 Challenge game against Kansas — at just the right time.

Said Calipari, “Let’s have fun with it.”

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