When Louisville gets into a rhythm defensively, it is as dangerous as any team in the country. Peyton Siva and Smith are a nightmare to try and drive against with the ball, and the Louisville wings have mastered the art of jumping passing lanes. For about a 10-minute stretch late in the first half and early in the second half, Louisville looked like the best team in the country.
But Kentucky didn't go away. It started with a pair of threes from Kyle Wiltjer. Then Willie Cauley-Stein made a couple of hustle plays and threw down a pair of dunks in traffic. Then Archie Goodwin finally found his way to the basket and his shooting stroke from deep. And despite digging itself into a 17-point hole, Kentucky managed to get within one possession of the Cardinals with five minutes left. Throw in a confidence-boosting 17 points from point guard Ryan Harrow, and there is actually plenty of reason to be pleased with this performance, if not the outcome, for Wildcat fans.
Kentucky's a work in progress, and as evidenced by its play on Saturday, Coach Cal's club is slowly but surely working on getting better.
The bigger issue here was the play of the Rebels. UNLV's performance in the first half was, frankly, embarrassing. The Rebels spent the first 15 minutes of the game jogging everywhere. Their offensive sets consisted of Anthony Marshall dribbling around for 20 seconds before making a pass that led directly to a forced shot. They were slow defensively and they were lackadaisical on the glass. It was the kind of performance you would expect out of an over-30 men's league team, not a top-20 team playing in the Dean Dome.
The Rebels made a run in the second half, but it wasn't enough. Yet again, a slow start on the road cost them. This is a storyline that UNLV fans should be familiar with, as playing outside of Vegas was UNLV's Achilles' Heel a season ago. The Rebels were 3-0 on the road heading into this game, but that included an eight-point win at Portland, a two-point win at UTEP and a one-point win at Cal. None of those performances were particularly awe-inspiring. Playing in a loaded, balanced Mountain West Conference, Dave Rice's team cannot afford go have bad nights like this.
The Broncos made a statement in the loss, however. Gonzaga is undoubtedly the favorite to win the league, but Santa Clara has the horses to challenge St. Mary's and BYU for a top-three finish in the league.