College Basketball Nation: Montrezl Harrell
So yes, you’re probably right to be upset if you don’t see your favorite hair on this list. There are 351 Division I teams and more than 4,000 players at this level.
Agree? Disagree? Tell us on Twitter by using #Top10Thursday.
1. Jordan Goodman, New Mexico
2. Sean Harris, Utah State
3. Jalen Moore, Utah State
4. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
5. Jake Layman, Maryland
6. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
7. Spike Albrecht, Michigan
8. Justise Winslow, Duke
9. Mo Alie-Cox, VCU
10. Ron Baker, Wichita State
It’s difficult to stop any elite Division I player. These athletes, however, are nightmare matchups for any individual or team in the country.
Agree? Disagree? Tell us on Twitter by using the hashtag #Top10Thursday.
1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
2. Georges Niang, Iowa State
3. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky
5. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
6. Myles Turner, Texas
7. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona
8. Ron Baker, Wichita State
9. Keifer Sykes, Green Bay
10. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
To be fair, you don't really need an introduction. You met two years ago.
You remember, right? April in Atlanta? It was the final few seconds of the Louisville Cardinals' legendary first half against Michigan -- the first half, you'll recall, that made Spike Albrecht a minor folk hero -- when Montrezl Harrell, up to his eyeballs in adrenaline, flung himself so high and so fast to catch a trailing alley-oop he drew a collective gasp from 70,000 Georgia Dome attendees. Has an arena that big ever been struck as dumb? Probably. The point is that's not the kind of dunk you forget, in a context that makes it downright impossible.
Still, some people have trouble with new faces. That was then. Harrell was an athletic engine as a freshman and a bruiser on the boards, but little else. A year later, he was a more significant piece of another 30-win Louisville team, but one that, like the rest of his teammates, mostly existed in Russ Smith's wackadoodle orbit. Harrell got better at the things he did well -- rebounding, rim finishing -- but he only needed to be so good.
In other words, say hello to the new Montrezl Harrell.
The big man's effort in Louisville's 81-68 Armed Forces Classic win over Minnesota didn't merely hint at his potential, it revealed it in full. After an offseason spent honing the finer parts of his game, and a fall spent racking up preseason accolades, Harrell's first basket of the season was a sweetly stroked 3-pointer from the left wing. He would hit two more on the night, one more than he made in his first two seasons combined. He would end the game with a career-high 30 points and seven rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting from the field (including 75 percent from 3) and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. It was about as efficient an offensive performance as a player can have.
Even more impressive? Fifteen of Harrell's 30 points came on jump shots. By contrast, last season just 6.5 percent of Harrell's possessions ended in spot-ups, and just 4.2 percent of his touches resulted in isolations, according to Synergy sports data. There's a reason Louisville coach Rick Pitino didn't put Harrell in those situations often: When he wasn't cutting, grabbing offensive rebounds or posting up, he was inefficient.
In the matter of an offseason, Harrell has gone from a better version of his raw freshman self -- active, aggressive, unrefined -- to something else entirely. He's catching the ball in the high post, pivoting in tune with his cutters and calmly sinking jumpers when the defense sinks. He's lining up 3s with the ease of a guard. He's running interior pick-and-rolls with Louisville's guards at tidy, precise angles.
Speaking of the guards, the results were more mixed. On one end, Terry Rozier was nearly the player of the game in his own right: He had 18 points on 11 shots and a downright Smith-ian six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Backcourt mate Chris Jones, on the other hand, shot just 4-of-13 from the field, and Wayne Blackshear looked uncomfortable (and shot just 1-of-4) throughout.
That's one key question as Louisville moves forward: How much depth does Pitino really have? Jones will play better, but Blackshear, now a senior, has never quite made good on his long-ago high school hype. Despite scorching nights from their two stars, the Cardinals shot just 46 percent overall and turned the ball over on nearly a quarter of their possessions.
Then again, Louisville's defense was good enough to force Minnesota -- a solid but overmatched team coached well by Pitino's son, Richard -- into just .87 points per trip. That's been the real key to the Cardinals' ongoing run of 30-win seasons: long, smart, harrassing defense. That was another question about the Cardinals: Whether they could guard the same way without Smith, who coupled loads of scoring with relentless perimeter pressure. If they can, a balanced scoring diet won't be nearly as important.
In the meantime, there is Harrell. Every season, there is a big man who draws his coaches' raves. He's shooting 3s now! He's got great post moves! Much of the time, this is wishful thinking, and the player goes back to doing what he did before.
Harrell had alley-oops Friday night. Two of them, actually, and both were spectacular. But now Harrell is combining the things that made him intriguing in the first place -- the strength, the motor, the borderline hilarious athleticism -- with the actualized version of his own best-case scenario.
He's dunking and draining 3s. He's doing everything. He is wishful thinking made real. And it's high time we all got reacquainted.
This week, each of our writers will answer that question. We encourage you to do the same via Twitter using #collegehoopsdinner.
Location: Kopp’s in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, off North Port Washington Road. That’s the best one. Why Kopp’s? Well, you won’t find a better burger in America. Yeah, you might track down a tasty gourmet burger downtown or somewhere in the suburbs. But Kopp’s is for everyone. It’s the place you MUST go if you want a taste of Milwaukee. The bonus? Amazing custard. Plus, it’s so loud in there. Everybody will be chit-chatting about the Packers and the Brewers and the Packers some more, so my side convo with a few guys who know what it’s like to climb above the rim won’t bother anyone.
Darvin Ham: There are some interesting possibilities, especially when you activate the “dead or alive” clause. But I want to know what it’s like to fly, since I can’t dunk anymore (ever). And these guys can convey that feeling. I picked Darvin Ham because his backboard-shattering dunk was the greatest sports moment of my youth. So I’m watching a matchup between North Carolina and Texas Tech in the 1996 NCAA tournament and then, BAM! Ham catches the rebound and dunks so hard that the backboard breaks into shards of glass. It was so ferocious and explosive. What was it like to smash the rim over Serge Zwikker and Antawn Jamison? Zwikker and Jamison literally covered their heads and ran. How does it feel to silence a crowd like that? Talk to me, Darvin. But don’t dunk on me.
Jerome Lane: “Send it in, Jerome.” Probably the greatest call and dunk in NCAA history. Bill Raferty immortalized that 1988 dunk with his line. But give Lane credit for being the guy who created the magic. I want to hear from him. Describe that moment. How did it feel to rip the rim off its frame and shatter a backboard in what might be the play that defines an entire era of college basketball? I need to know these things. Also, did he ever send a sympathy card to the Providence guy he embarrassed and kneed in the face? C'mon, Jerome. Tell me.
Harold Miner: He has avoided the spotlight for many years. That “Baby Jordan” nickname and the subsequent NBA struggles affected his legacy. So it’s easy to forget how good he was in college. He is USC’s all-time leading scorer, and he was an All-American during his time at USC. Plus, he had mad dunks. Dunks for days, man. Miner was an acrobat. Just ask any USC or UCLA fan about the time he maneuvered through three Bruins and finished with one of the nastiest dunks you’ll see. Maybe he’ll open up at a table with a bunch of guys who can relate to those feats.
Montrezl Harrell: How did the Louisville junior end up in this group? He shattered his SECOND backboard of the year on Sunday. We know he can’t duplicate that in a real game with real rims -- he broke both backboards in off-campus matchups -- but he’s still one of the most ferocious dunkers in college basketball today. Last season, his 98 dunks established a Louisville record. I saw him last month at an event in Louisville. When you see him walking among the mortals, he looks like something that Marvel created. We need someone to represent the current game at this function. So Harrell gets an invite. Just don’t break the table or the chairs, man. We gotta eat first.
On the menu: We’ll keep it simple. That’s what I love -- we all love -- about Kopp’s. Nothing fancy or complicated. Double cheeseburgers -- with mayo, ketchup and lettuce -- and fries for the entire crew. Vanilla custard cones when we’re finished with the meal. And it’s on me, fellas. I just want to sit back and listen to these dunk tales.
Tennessee vs. Michigan
What to watch: Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon have led Tennessee’s charge to the Sweet 16 thus far. A Michigan team that lacks a comparable post threat could struggle with Tennessee’s tough bigs inside, but the Vols will have their hands full as they try to stay in front of Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas.
Who to watch: The potential battle between Stauskas, a 6-foot-6 shooter who won Big Ten player of the year honors, and 6-6 wing Josh Richardson could decide the game. Richardson has to find a way to frustrate Stauskas, who can hurt opponents by shooting or slashing.
Why watch: There will be fireworks because this is not the same Tennessee team that struggled throughout the SEC season. The Vols are hot right now and are running into a Michigan team that also overcame adversity -- notably the losses of Trey Burke and Mitch McGary -- to reach this stage.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
What to watch: Kentucky had little trouble in its 73-66 victory over Louisville on Dec. 28, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the hybrid zone that Louisville has used in recent weeks will stifle Kentucky’s offense this time.
Who to watch: Julius Randle (17 points) had a great game the first meeting. Can Montrezl Harrell & Co. find a way to stop the future lottery pick?
Why watch: This is Louisville-Kentucky with a shot at the Elite Eight on the line. It’s that simple.
But tucked in the undercard, some of the conference POY races could very well end up a pick 'em.
Case in point: the first installment of the American Athletic Conference hardware. Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier, Louisville guard Russ Smith or Cincinnati forward Sean Kilpatrick. Who do you take? How do you pick?
It’s impossible, really, the difference between the trio almost nonexistent, a most subjective pick of taste.
The edge might go to whomever wins the conference crown, which is why Saturday’s game between Connecticut and Louisville might be so critical. The Cardinals could take a piece of the American pie by beating the Huskies in Smith’s final home game.
Those are some serious stakes.
Smith, who a few weeks ago decided it was time to stop playing like he thought people (read: NBA scouts) wanted him to play and instead play like he wanted to, has been Russdiculous-ing again, to impressive results. His 26 points against SMU -- complete with trips to a nearby garbage can to vomit -- was just the latest in a string of incredible performances that have put Louisville back in the national title-contender conversations.
He’s been getting help with the emergence of Montrezl Harrell as a steady and powerful post presence, giving the Cards the inside game they had been sorely lacking in the early part of the season.
Though the Napier-Smith tango will get the eyeballs, Harrell might actually be the difference-maker. As good as Napier has been -- and he has been Kemba Walker-like sensational -- his supporting cast can’t match Louisville’s.
But you’re forgiven if you watch the two guards for the sheer pleasure of it. They’ve earned it.
Both Smith and Napier, who finished his home career with 26 points against Rutgers, have enjoyed their share of bumps and bruises along the way but have managed to do what few great college players have the time or chance to do anymore -- grow and mature as people and as players.
What you see on the floor now are players who, along with Kilpatrick, don’t see the responsibilities of leadership as a burden but instead welcome them. Big moments are never too big for them. Slow starts are there to eventually be remedied.
Somehow, some way, the conference will have to split hairs to hand out its first player of the year trophy.
The bad news -- two players will have to lose.
The good news -- the league can’t go wrong.
CINCINNATI -- Louisville's 58-57 road win Saturday bore some resemblance to Rick Pitino's new facial hair. Not always smooth. Definitely some scraggly patches.
But, like the beards Pitino and his players began sporting before Valentine's Day, the No. 11 Cardinals might not be going away anytime soon. Much as they did a year ago at this time, the defending national champions are displaying noticeable growth in February. Louisville (23-4) has won six straight and got its first major scalp of the season by nipping No. 7 Cincinnati in a close shave.
"This was big for us," swingman Wayne Blackshear said. "There were a lot of doubters out there saying how good are we because we can't beat a ranked team. But obviously we pulled one out today."
It took a signature moment of Russdiculousness for the Cardinals to finally earn that cornerstone victory. Russ Smith knocked down a jumper from the left elbow with 2.2 seconds left, helping Louisville avenge a three-point home loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 30 and creating a virtual tie atop the American Athletic Conference standings with the Bearcats.
That Smith would take and make the game winner came as no surprise. The unexpected part was that his late-game unselfishness proved the difference in a back-and-forth street brawl of a contest.
Cincinnati erased a 10-point second-half deficit and led 55-52 with just 1:28 left after Justin Jackson sank two free throws. After a timeout, Smith dumped the ball to Montrezl Harrell for a dunk off a designed pick-and-roll. On Louisville's next possession, Smith contorted through traffic to find Harrell for an easy layup.
"It was a great play," Pitino said, "but it was an even better play by Terry."
There's little doubt that trigger-happy Smith would have jacked up a quick shot rather than work for a better one early in his career. But the senior -- who made only three field goals Saturday -- said he showed maturity by searching for his teammates against the Bearcats.
"That was the right thing to do," he said. "That was the basketball play, to give it up.
"I knew scoringwise that I wasn't going to beat Cincinnati. It was going to be a team effort, and I was going to have to find people, get Montrezl going, get everybody else going. I feel really good about the decisions I made down the stretch."
Louisville won in an extremely hostile environment despite getting only 10 points from Smith and enduring one of Luke Hancock's worst games (0-for-6 from the floor, five fouls). That's because other players are starting to contribute more, which is a great sign for the Cardinals as March approaches.
In a fitting regular-season halt to this rivalry -- the two teams have no scheduled games in the foreseeable future after the Cardinals bolt to the ACC -- every play in the paint turned into a mosh pit of flying body parts. No one enjoyed that more than 235-pound Harrell, who led Louisville with 21 points and 10 rebounds. That marked Harrell's sixth double-double in his past 12 games, and Pitino said the sophomore forward is "really developing into a great basketball player."
"I just try to go out there and be that one to dive on the ball or hustle down to the block," Harrell said. "Just do something to get my team going and hope they feed off my energy."
Rozier, a nonfactor much of the season, added 11 points and has scored in double figures in three straight. He provided key minutes and defense Saturday as Hancock struggled.
"I never really played that much against good teams earlier in the year," Rozier said. "[Pitino's] confidence in me is definitely growing, and I'm getting more minutes and more looks. He's starting to trust me."
Even Blackshear, who has had a frustrating tendency to disappear in big games, came up with the key defensive play by blocking a Sean Kilpatrick layup attempt with 47 seconds left.
Pitino said he gave the same pregame speech he delivered before last year's Final Four game against Wichita State, telling his players the better defensive team would win. Neither team shot well in what Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin described as a "bloodbath," but Louisville held the Bearcats to a season-low 28.6 percent from the floor. That included a 3-for-26 start to the game.
Kilpatrick matched the 28 points he scored in last month's win at the KFC Yum! Center but had to work much harder for his points as the Cardinals' aggressive zone often kept him far from the lane. He hit just nine of his 26 shots and -- after an 11-for-11 free throw performance in the first meeting -- missed a foul shot that could have given his team a three-point cushion in the final two minutes.
The Bearcats (24-4) lost for just the second time since Dec. 14. Meanwhile, the Cardinals appear to be taking off at the right time. They vowed before last week's win at Temple not to shave again until they lost a game. Results have varied on that fuzzy front.
"I look like a 61-year-old, aging Al Pacino," Pitino joked after the game.
The most striking facial features among the Louisville contingent Saturday afternoon were the broad smiles through the whiskers. The beards will continue to grow. So, too, does this team's outlook.
That 69-66 win for Cincy on Jan. 30 is the only home loss on Louisville’s résumé since Jan. 12. The Cards have won nine of their past 10, with Cincinnati as its lone blemish during this stretch.
It was an interesting matchup. Louisville outscored Cincinnati 46-41 in the second half and forced 20 turnovers. But Sean Kilpatrick’s 28-point effort was too much for the Cardinals to overcome.
Even though that game was just three weeks ago, this next matchup might involve new factors that weren’t as prominent in the first meeting.
Both Cincy and Louisville are receiving contributions from young players on their rosters. Russ Smith versus Kilpatrick might have been the headline last month, but this game is not about two players. It’s about two teams competing for the American Athletic Conference crown and prepping for March while gaining traction as their freshmen and sophomores continue to mature and produce down the stretch.
Those youngsters could be the deciding factors in a matchup between two teams in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
Freshman Terry Rozier took seven shots in the first matchup against Cincinnati. But he’s 11-for-24 with 29 points, seven rebounds, four assists, five steals and two turnovers in Louisville’s past two games. Mangok Mathiang has gone through growing pains in his first few seasons, but the big man looks more comfortable now with the idea of hoisting up the occasional forever-unblockable hook shot inside. And other than a 47 percent clip from the charity stripe, Montrezl Harrell's numbers (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg) are impressive. That trio could give Louisville an edge against the Bearcats.
But Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin hopes a few of his underclassmen will help on Saturday and beyond, too.
Shaquille Thomas (7.1 ppg), a 6-foot-7 forward, comes and goes. But in the team’s past two games, the sophomore has scored 19 points and connected on 50 percent of his shots. There’s always a chance that he’ll have a big day. He’s talented enough to make a difference. Freshman Troy Caupain has had five double-digit scoring efforts this season. And he’s a solid shooter from outside. Will he make noise in this high-profile matchup?
Justin Jackson, Luke Hancock, Smith and Kilpatrick will be the players who will carry a chunk of the weight for their respective squads.
But this one could be close again. And it could come down to a handful of plays, plays that some newer faces might have to make in this crucial AAC matchup.
STORRS, Conn. -- After 677 career wins and two national titles, Louisville coach Rick Pitino is not a man accustomed to ceding control of a timeout. But Saturday night, just before the biggest shot of the biggest win of Louisville’s season, he passed the figurative whiteboard to Montrezl Harrell.
It was the 18:40 mark of the second half, and UConn guard Shabazz Napier had just hit a long 3-pointer to tie the game 34-34 -- the first tie since the opening minutes of the first half. Gampel Pavilion was roaring. Pitino called a timeout. He began to draw up a play -- some way the Cardinals could get an easy bucket, maybe knock some of the steam out of frenzied Gampel Pavilion -- which is when Harrell spoke up.
“It was a back-door play off our quick action,” Pitino said. “And actually Montrezl made the call. He said, ‘I think I can get Luke [Hancock] on the back door.’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
After the timeout, Harrell set a backscreen on Napier, Hancock’s defender, who found himself trailing his man by a foot when Stephan Van Treese laid two more screens on the opposite wing. The third gave Hancock the space he needed, and his 3 kick-started the 11-0 run that broke Louisville’s 76-64 win open.
Pitino’s credit-where-due recounting of that timeout was the most surprising of Harrell’s contributions Saturday night, but it was hardly the most important. Harrell also had 13 rebounds, three blocks, 39 minutes on the floor, affected a number of shots without fouling -- and, last but not least, had 18 points on just 10 shots.
He’s not far off as it is. Saturday’s performance -- which buoyed the Cardinals in an otherwise sloppy first half -- showcased a host of skills Harrell has been gradually unveiling in recent weeks: strength around the rim, touch from range, angular savvy on the defensive end, and a rebounding safety net on both ends of the floor. Louisville grabbed 78.4 percent of available defensive rebounds Saturday night, 10 of which went to Harrell.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, Pitino’s team attempted 34 of its 57 shots inside the paint. Twelve of Harrell’s 18 points came in the lane, including 10 of his first-half 15. The Huskies, for all their speed on the wing, had no answer. After Hancock’s shot and the 11-0 run -- right around the time UConn coach Kevin Ollie was thrown out of the game via a pair of questionable technical fouls -- the interior mismatch had essentially decided the game.
Harrell’s breakout is the culmination of months spent drilling footwork and flexibility. The result is a player with an increasing array of over-the-shoulder post moves, one more comfortable catching the ball on the block and reading the defense, one who doesn’t need the perfect pass or an offensive rebound to be effective around the rim.
“What he’s needed to work on is his footwork in the low post,” Pitino said. “The jump shot is fine, but if he’s going to make it at the next level, that’s what [the NBA] wants to see. They saw a lot of it tonight.”
In the past, Pitino has often described Harrell as “too erect.” It’s an affliction many highly touted post players suffer from early in their college careers: In high school, merely being taller than everyone on the court is usually more than enough. Bending your knees and battling for position is often beside the point.
Harrell played an important role off the bench in the Cardinals’ national title run as a freshman, but was never a featured player because he never needed to be. Now, with Behanan booted from the program and Gorgui Dieng in the NBA, the Cardinals can’t win without him. And so Harrell has begun to listen to the singular piece of instruction his coach is constantly begging him to heed. He’s bending his knees.
“It really is just a little thing like that,” Harrell said. “Stay down, bending my knees, being ready to make a move, making sure I’m ready to go.”
“You saw him do a lot of that stuff in the summer and in the fall,” guard Russ Smith said. “He would hit that jumper, that little hook shot. But it’s hard to bring what you’re doing in the gym into the game. I recently had this dribble move-bounce pass thing I was working on in the gym and I tried to do it in a game and it went out of bounds. It just takes time to work that stuff in.”
Whatever Harrell is working, he’s doing so at the perfect time. Louisville’s loss to Memphis Jan. 9 was just the latest disappointing result for a defending national champion whose best resume win prior to Saturday was either a 31-point home victory over Southern Miss or last week’s 71-63 win over SMU. While the Cardinals weren’t in danger of missing the 2014 NCAA tournament, getting into mid-January without a tentpole victory wasn’t part of the plan, either.
Now, after holding off UConn in its own building -- the same UConn that won at Memphis earlier this week -- the Cardinals might finally be getting the kind of interior play they need to pair with a skilled and versatile backcourt.
“Every time we rebound the basketball and outrebound our opponent we win like 95 percent of our games,” Pitino said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t outrebounded a whole lot of opponents.
“But when we have this kind of rebounding and play from Montrezl Harrell, who the last three weeks has really improved his post game … who’s worked very hard on his footwork. And he deserves a massive amount of credit for working that hard.”
And a little credit for a play-call, too. Don’t expect to see Harrell with the whiteboard in his hand anytime soon. But if he can stay on the floor, knees bent all the while, Louisville’s post-Behanan prospectus might not be so downcast after all.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Memphis and Louisville are old rivals, dating back to their days as league partners in the Missouri Valley, Metro and Conference USA.
For one more year, they're playing together in the same conference. And on Thursday night, Memphis showed that the Cardinals aren't simply going to roll through the American Athletic without some company.
The defending national champions were the overwhelming choice to run away with the American title this year before moving on to the ACC. But the No. 24 Tigers beat No. 12 Louisville 73-67 at the Cardinals’ own game and on their own court while proving there's more than one contender in this league.
If you needed any proof that this was an important win for the Tigers, you only had to look at head coach Josh Pastner after the buzzer sounded. Pastner pumped his fist and shot back at some Louisville fans in the KFC Yum! Center crowd who he said had been ripping his team's academic prowess. Pastner said later that's all part of the rivalry, one in which the Cardinals had won four straight dating back to 2005.
Not on this night, even after Louisville went up 64-59 after a Montrezl Harrell dunk with 3 minutes, 50 seconds left. Memphis needed only 37 seconds to tie the game back up, and it would score the final seven points of the game.
Rather than hoist up quick 3-pointers after falling behind, Pastner's team stuck to the game plan, which was to attack the rim and pierce Louisville's soft interior. It was a lesson learned painfully last Saturday against Cincinnati, when the Tigers lost 69-53 -- their worst conference defeat in 15 years -- while settling for jumpers and going 2-for-17 from the 3-point line.
Their final 19 points on Thursday night all came on layups, dunks and free throws.
"That's all we talk about -- going downhill, driving the ball and attacking the rim," said Jackson, who scored 15 points. "That's basically the best part of the game. You don't win by taking jump shots; you win from attacking the basket and finishing and making a free throw."
The Tigers said they developed poise and toughness earlier this season in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., where they fought back from a deficit to beat LSU and then defeated Oklahoma State in a rematch from a loss 12 days earlier. They also took Florida to the wire before falling by two last month in the Jimmy V Classic.
"That shows how this team can face adversity," forward Shaq Goodwin said. "We had a couple of battle-tested games, and we ended up coming out with wins."
If only Louisville could say the same thing. The Cardinals' lofty ranking was once again exposed as fool's gold based on their feasting on inferior competition; they entered the night with the No. 269 schedule by strength in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy. In their only tests this season against ranked opponents -- versus North Carolina and at Kentucky -- they lost each decisively. Since Memphis is the only other American Athletic team currently ranked, Thursday night offered Rick Pitino's team one of its few remaining chances for a quality win.
Yet even with 2013 Final Four MVP Luke Hancock finally getting untracked -- he scored 20 points for the first time since the title-game win over Michigan last April -- the Cardinals suffered the same problems that have plagued them in big games this season.
Other than a solid performance from Harrell, who scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, the Louisville frontcourt contributed almost nothing. Memphis held a 42-34 advantage in the paint, and its guards made better decisions and more plays down the stretch than the Cardinals' backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones, the latter of whom bricked through a 1-of-9 shooting night against his hometown team.
Most tellingly, the Tigers shot 50.9 percent from the field against a team that has long prided itself on defense under Pitino.
"We got confused a couple of times with the game on the line with what defense we were in," Pitino said. "We didn't get confused one time last year. I don't know what's so difficult about it. We only played two."
Pitino, whose team fell to 2-1 early on in American Athletic play, later added that "this is a much tougher league than all of us anticipated." Memphis, which will host Louisville on March 1, aims to make sure that is true.
"We made a statement tonight," senior guard Geron Johnson said, "but we're going to see those guys who knows how many more times. A guaranteed one more time, and then maybe in the conference tournament. So, it's not over."
These two old rivals still have one heated more conference race between them.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- As Julius Randle made his way to the locker room -- leg cramps, not Louisville, the only thing that could stop him in Rupp Arena -- it was hard not think back to a Kentucky moment from a year ago.
That situation was far more dire -- his team already trailed by a dozen when Nerlens Noel crashed into a stanchion at Florida.
But there was still a fighting chance left for the season, depending on whom the Cats decided to be. Turns out, those Cats decided to be a shell of their former selves, waving the white flag of surrender and losing five of their final nine, including a dismal NIT loss at Robert Morris.
There seemed so much wrong with Kentucky that even the usual fervor and blustering surrounding the commonwealth rivalry was quieted.
And then Randle left for the locker room for the final time with 11:01 left in a one-point game against nemesis Louisville.
So just who did Kentucky want to be?
“We wanted to prove to people that we could play together and be a team,’’ James Young said.
In impressive fashion, Kentucky did.
The game tied at 53, Young scored after scooping up a missed shot and the Cats would never trail again, going on to win 73-66.
It helped that Louisville looked thoroughly dysfunctional. Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan are on a milk carton somewhere in Kentucky, missing in action with a woeful 2-of-5 combined shooting effort. Luke Hancock didn’t actually fare much better, going 2-of-8 from the arc and 3-of-11 from the floor.
But this game was as much about what Kentucky did as what Louisville didn’t.
Statistically the Cats played to their strengths, pulling down 17 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points, but it’s more how they played and how they looked than what the stat sheet said.
“Did we look more like a basketball team today?’’ John Calipari said. “We looked like a basketball team. Here is what was on the board today -- look like a team; play like a team; fight like a team. That was the key to the game. There was no, ‘let’s guard the pick and roll.’ We have to be more like a team and that’s what they were today.’’
Now anyone who would call the Cats cured of what ails them after one game clearly has never met a teenager. They are as predictable as the shape of paint splatter shot out of a cannon.
It is nothing less than fool’s gold to take a courageous performance in a heated rivalry game in front of a fevered crowd and say the magic wand has been waved for the season.
Calipari admitted as much, happy to point out Kentucky’s lousy free-throw shooting (53 percent) and 3-point shooting (3-of-14). He was so jazzed by the win that he said he’d give his team all of 12 hours to enjoy it.
He plans to practice at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
But there is almost always a turning point in a season, a moment a team can pinpoint and say, "this is where we got our act together." Louisville’s, for example, came in five overtimes last season, in what would be its last loss of the season.
This could very well be Kentucky’s.
“From here on out, we’re just going to be a real good team,’’ Young vowed. “Just going to fight the whole game and not just take quarters off and plays off; just keep fighting.’’
The dirty little secret with the "best college basketball recruiting class ever assembled" is that with the exception of Randle, it has been pretty mediocre. Andrew and Aaron Harrison have been inconsistent and Young has been streaky with his shooting. Only Randle has been steady.
Even playing essentially just one half against Louisville, Randle managed to keep his double-digit scoring streak alive. He had 17 by the break.
Yet without him, Kentucky actually played well, if not better (and let’s pause here for foolishness identification. Anyone who thinks the Cats are "too reliant" on Randle has clearly lost his mind. It’s OK to be reliant on a guy who will be a top-five draft pick).
In place of eye rolling or shoulder sagging from the much-maligned Harrison twins, there was a combined 28 points and (mostly) smart decisions with the ball. From Young, there were three made treys, but also 10 key rebounds.
And from the Cats in general there was a sense of urgency and purpose.
"I know we get criticized a lot for being young and body language and stuff like that, but we knew we could win this game," Andrew Harrison said. “Going against a team like Louisville, we knew we had to bring it."
There always has been ample talent to win an NCAA title here -- probably enough talent to challenge for a D-League title, for that matter.
But all that talent, strangely enough, has been the Cats’ Achilles heel. In high school, in summer league games talent almost always wins. Teams can afford to take a play off here or turn on the jets at the last minute and waltz into the showers with a victory.
With the better part of this roster only a few months removed from the ease of winning, it was hard to convince them things had to be done differently in college.
Now there is evidence -- not just how a team can lose when it doesn’t work together, but how a team can win when it does.