By Randy McClure
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Just a month ago during Thanksgiving week, Kentucky head coach John Calipari gave an exasperated look to the assembled media after a tougher-than-expected victory over a scrappy Cleveland State squad. The words coming out of his mouth were standard issue coachspeak about getting better, trusting in the process, and the rest of it; but the look on his face was one of perplexed bemusement. He knew then, of course, as he knew in October, that he had as much or more pure basketball talent at his disposal -- we're talking the ability to put the ball in the hole, and stopping you from doing the same, here -- as anyone in college basketball, but it was clear from his visceral frustration that his square peg instructions weren't quite fitting into the round hole brains of his precocious youngsters.
After Kentucky's impressive second-half push to notch its first marquee victory of the season over bitter rival and defending national champion, Louisville, on Saturday afternoon, Calipari's face and demeanor painted a slightly different mosaic. The 73-66 win was notable not only as another rivalry win that pushed the head coach's five-year home record to a superb 76-2 in Rupp Arena, but also because the Wildcats "looked like a basketball team," as he put it, with Julius Randle's you-can't-stop-me 17-point first half (on 7-of-8 shooting) combining with Andrew and Aaron Harrison's second half 21-point evisceration of the typically-outstanding Louisville defense to notch the Wildcats' biggest win of the season (the Harrison twins scored 67 percent of Kentucky's second half points).
Kentucky star Julius Randle played only four minutes in the second half as he endured painful cramping in his legs. After subbing out for good with just under 11 minutes remaining in the second half and his team down a point, 52-51, Kentucky's smaller but more active lineup went on a 15-4 run over the next five-plus minutes to effectively salt away the game. While Louisville's previously red-hot guard duo of Russ Smith (19 points) and Chris Smith (18 points) managed only a single free throw make over that span, the Harrisons took advantage of the situation with their star post player on the bench by repeatedly driving into the lane and finding openings. During the pivotal run, Andrew scored on back-to-back drives (including a three-point play), Aaron provided one of his own, and Andrew also hit a spotting-up James Young for a big three that pushed the lead out of reach of the fading Cardinals.
There's a lasting value in Kentucky's young players not named Randle finding their own way in a pressure-filled environment against an elite defense. And Calipari's mood after the game suggested as much. As this group grows more cohesive and gains a better understanding of each other's tendencies, SEC and postseason opponents will be faced with a wing-and-a-prayer strategy for beating Kentucky, one where they mostly have to hope the Wildcats come out relatively unfocused during an off shooting night. If you zone them, expect to get crushed on the offensive glass, as Louisville was in the first half (12-0 in second chance points). If you play them man-to-man, expect Randle to kill you in the post with the Harrisons and Young providing spot-up duty from the perimeter. If Randle finds himself in foul trouble or is injured/cramping again at some future point, expect the Harrisons to turn on the jets and run roughshod into the lane for easy baskets and lobs as they did in the second half tonight. What we are describing here is a recipe for success through multiple avenues with no clear way to exploit this team's few weaknesses (foul shooting, three-point shooting, some carelessness with the ball).
Coming into Saturday's game, we had a pretty good indication the first two strategies were workable for the Wildcats and only set to improve as playing experience meshes with great talent, but nobody had really seen how the last one might work out until the second half of this game.
Randle is a sublime offensive talent -- equal parts the collegiate versions of Antoine Walker crossed with Derrick Coleman -- and as such, he had to this point in the year felt like the one indispensable component of the Kentucky attack. What we learned today is that is not necessarily the case. A seven-point home win over one of the nation's most efficient defensive units (seventh coming into the game) without Randle providing the game-winning push says Calipari's mood from January through April will be more jovial and relaxed than what it has been for the first eight weeks of the season. His 'Cats are growing up.
Randy McClure (@rushthecourt) is the Executive Editor of Rush the Court, the nation's independent voice of college basketball.