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Four-Point Play: Kentucky's freshmen step up, Tyler Ennis dazzles and more

Andrew Harrison's 18 points helped Kentucky take down in-state rival Louisville. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)Andrew Harrison's 18 points helped Kentucky take down in-state rival Louisville. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

Four-Point Play is One and One’s attempt to highlight the best team, player, game and GIF from the past seven days of college hoops. We reserve the right to tweak the formula on a weekly basis. Expect this column every Sunday.

Game of the week (1): No. 18 Kentucky 73, No. 6 Louisville 66 

When Kentucky wrapped up its 2013 recruiting class earlier this year, the consensus was that the Wildcats would dominate early in the 2013-14 season and throughout it, much in the same way they did in 2011-12, when freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist led Kentucky to a 38-2 record and a national championship. The 2013 class was hailed as the best ever: It features Six McDonald’s All-Americans and five of the top 11 players in the country, according to Rivals.

Over the first 12 games of the season, before Saturday’s home tilt with no. 6 Louisville, Kentucky’s recruiting class had mostly underwhelmed. One player, the nation’s no. 2 ranked prospect, Julius Randle, was the exception. As expected, Randle had shined, physically dominating opposing frontcourt players and presenting most defenders with a simple choice: Foul or get dunked on. His scoring (18.1) and rebounding (10.6) averages were about what most would expect – maybe a little better – from a player projected to be a top-five NBA draft pick. Randle had lived up to the hype.

The problem was that the rest of Kentucky’s ridiculous 2013 recruiting class had not.  Andrew Harrison, billed as the better half of the greatest recruiting package deal ever before Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor at once chose Duke, had played inconsistent, error-riddled basketball (brother Aaron, by contrast, had emerged as one of Kentucky’s most consistent players). James Young had been scoring in double digits most games, but often needed a few too many shots to get there. Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee were both averaging less than 10 minutes a game. And while Randle’s draft stock had remained relatively steady, his classmates’ was slipping.

Midway through the second half of Saturday’s game, Kentucky faced a challenge it seemingly could not overcome. Randle exited the game due to leg cramps, meaning the Wildcats needed to find a way to beat the defending national champion Cardinals without their best player. Louisville led 52-51 after guard Chris Jones converted a three-point play around the 11-minute mark. The other freshmen, the ones who had mostly served as ancillary parts behind Randle during the early part of the season, would need to step up.

They did, though that’s probably an understatement. Kentucky’s supporting cast rose to the occasion to score not only another gratifying win in college basketball’s most heated rivalry, but also upend the team whose experience and cohesion was cast as a purportedly superior paradigmatic contrast to the Wildcats’ youth and inexperience.

Young and Andrew Harrison scored 18 points apiece, and the latter – who has given away 22.5 percent of his possessions to the other team this season, according to Kenpom.com – turned it over just twice in 34 minutes. Young added 10 rebounds and four assists. The Harrison twins and Young scored 25 of Kentucky’s 30 second-half points and helped Kentucky deliver a game-changing 15-4 run.

“I thought we grew up,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters afterward. “We looked like a basketball team today.”

“It always hurts when you lose a great player," Andrew Harrison said. "But at the same time, we all knew we had to bring it and that just means we all had to step it up a little bit.”

Alex Poythress and sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein also made key contributions. Cauley-Stein’s defense in particular was pivotal in helping Kentucky hold off the hard-charging Cardinals down the stretch.

This is Kentucky’s best win of the season so far, but it could wind up being something far more important. The Wildcats’ non-Randle freshmen stepped up in a huge spot and proved they can carry their team to victory without its best player. There will likely be games, in SEC play and the NCAA Tournament, when Randle isn’t able to totally dominate, when Kentucky needs players like the Harrisons and Young to play as big as their recruiting rankings suggest they should. They didn’t back down from the challenge Saturday, which should give them confidence in similar situations the rest of this season. The win against Louisville, then, could be a turning point.

While Kentucky played arguably its best game of the season to date, Louisville showed a couple of major flaws. First, the Cardinals looked aimless and disjointed when trying to run their half-court offense. All too often, they resorted to low-percentage shots from Jones or Russ Smith; the two guards needed 33 shots to score 37 points.

Louisville also struggled to match up with Kentucky’s size. The Wildcats grabbed 41.5 percent of their missed shots and 69.2 percent of their opponent’s; the Cardinals managed just 30.8 and 58.5 percent, respectively. Montrezl Harrell took just two shots and Chane Behanan went 0-for-3 from the field. The Cardinals’ frontcourt also struggled defensively. Harrell, Stephen Van Treese, Mangcok Mathiang and Chane Behanan couldn’t slow Randle, who repeatedly attacked the rim and finished with 17 points in limited action.

One loss won’t define Louisville’s season. Rick Pitino’s team didn’t truly reach peak form last season until February, after a five-overtime loss to Notre Dame, before going on to win the national championship. There is time to work out the kinks. But the Cardinals will enter conference play with some work to do. Because Louisville has lost to the only two quality opponents it has played (No. 19 North Carolina on a neutral court, at Kentucky), it will need to take advantage of the few opportunities available for big wins in American Athletic Conference play to position itself for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats host Mississippi State on Jan. 8 to open SEC play. If the freshmen who stepped up in Randle’s absence Saturday continue to play that way with Randle on the court, the expectations many had in the preseason that Kentucky could win the national championship will feel more realistic.

Game of the week (2): No. 2 Syracuse 78, No. 8 Villanova 62

Two long-time rivals, both undefeated and ranked in the top-10 of the AP Poll, squared off Saturday, and it wasn’t even the most highly anticipated matchup of the day. Syracuse-Villanova might not rival Kentucky-Lousville’s national discussion-dominating power, but it typically presents an entertaining game between two great teams.

On Saturday, one player on one of those teams turned the game into his own personal showcase. Orange point guard Tyler Ennis was the No. 22-ranked recruit in the 2013 class, but the number of freshmen that have played better than him this season can be counted on one hand.

Ennis scored 20 points on 6-of-14 shooting and committed zero turnovers in 37 minutes Saturday to lead Syracuse to yet another impressive non-conference win (the Orange had already beaten Minnesota, Cal, No. 11 Baylor, Indiana and St. John’s coming in). Syracuse’s star freshman is now averaging 12.8 points, 5.1 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game, boasts a turnover percentage of 9.8, one of the 120 best marks in the country, and a steal percentage of 5.2 (11th in the country).

With help from sophomore guard Trevor Cooney, Ennis has extinguished the doubt many had in the preseason about how Syracuse’s backcourt would fare without first-round draft pick Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. As Luke Winn pointed out in his most recent power rankings, Ennis has actually been better than MCW so far this season.

After Syracuse fell behind 25-7 midway through the first half, Ennis helped his team score 20 unanswered points and hold Villanova scoreless for more than seven minutes. The Orange took a 38-34 lead into halftime and pulled away after the break. The Wildcats made it interesting late in the latter part second half, pulling within three at the seven-minute mark, but they couldn’t do enough to hang with Ennis and the Orange, who are now 12-0 and have established themselves as the clear favorite to win the ACC.

"Syracuse has a really good team," Villanova coach Jay Wright told reporters afterward. "They really played at a high level. This is a tough place to play."

The breadth of Ennis’ contributions cannot be captured by the box score. There’s something unique about the way he plays. His advanced understanding of the game, and the point guard position in particular, is obvious to anyone who watches him play.

His body control, sublime vision, ability to read angles, ward off aggressive defenders with tight dribbles and change directions and speeds comprises a skill set unlike any other point guard’s in college basketball. There’s something distinctly throwback about his game. He just seems more in control when he has the ball than anyone else on the court.

“He’s just really clever,” Orange coach Jim Boeheim said of Ennis. “He kind of lulls people to sleep like he’s not going. And we’re getting good movement to create lanes for him.”

Syracuse will begin conference play Jan. 4, when it hosts Miami. Besides No. 9 Duke, no ACC team looks like it can challenge the Orange for the league’s regular-season crown. With Ennis playing this well, this team might be the best in the country, too.

Team of the week: No. 14 Iowa State

You can be forgiven for missing what Iowa State did this week. The Cyclones won three games against George Mason, Akron and Boise State in a four-day span from Dec. 22-Dec. 25, en route to earning first-place in the Diamond Head Classic. But you were probably too occupied with Christmas shopping to notice.

Even if you didn’t catch the Cyclones this week, you really should try to watch them after the calendar flips. Fred Hoiberg’s team, at 11-0, is off to its best start in school history and counts wins over then-No. 7 Michigan, BYU and No. 22 Iowa. Picked to finish fourth in the Big 12’s preseason coaches poll, the Cyclones look capable of challenging Baylor, No. 16 Kansas and No. 7 Oklahoma State for the league title.

"We've only played eight games coming into this tournament, so it was very important to get these and take care of business and give us some momentum heading into conference," Hoiberg said after his team beat the Broncos.

The Cyclones, ranked 17th in Kenpom’s team ratings, play fast (their 72.2 possessions per game rank 26th in the country), have an explosive offense (16th in offensive efficiency) and are solid on the other end (36th). They have four players who should vie for All-Conference recognition this season: guard DeAndre Kane (14.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 5.5 apg) and forwards Melvin Ejim (18.0, 8.8, 2.4), Georges Niang (16.0, 3.7, 3.5) and Dustin Hogue (13.5, 10.3).

On its face, the set of wins Iowa State picked up this week isn’t all that impressive. Only one of the teams it beat, Boise State, is likely to make a push for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. But the Cyclones, by virtue of winning those three games, cleared their final non-conference hurdle and essentially wrapped up a perfect first two months of the season (provided they beat Northern Illinois, ranked 270th in Pomeroy’s ratings, on New Year’s Eve). Hoiberg’s team will have a chance to validate its hot start in January when it hosts Baylor (Jan. 7) and Kansas (Jan. 13) and plays at Oklahoma (Jan. 11), Texas (Jan. 18) and the Jayhawks (Jan. 29).

GIF of the week: Russ Smith takes flight

russsmith

(h/t SB Nation)

This came in a losing effort, but it would have been an injustice not to highlight Smith’s incredible dunk. Smith is generously listed at 6-0 on Louisville’s official athletic website; Julius Randle, the physically dominating future lottery pick Smith dunked on, is 6-9. I’m not sure what was more impressive: Smith crossing up Cauley-Stein and splitting a double team at the top of the key, or the actual throwdown.

https://twitter.com/rushthecourt/status/417055696874524673

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