Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's performance against Louisville on Saturday afternoon was undeniable.
He had 24 points on the night, 18 of them coming in the first half as Kentucky built a 15 point lead. He also added 19 rebounds, with 10 of those coming in the second half as Kentucky forced Louisville into miss after miss, pulling away from the Cardinals to win 69-62. If it wasn't for two Russ Smith threes in the final 10 seconds, that final score would have looked quite a bit less respectable.
At this point, there really is no argument that MKG is the best player on Kentucky. He may not have the most upside, but there is nothing that he can't do on a basketball court. He defends, he attacks the glass, he can penetrate to score or to pass and he can hit a three. There is only one player (Jared Sullinger) I would consider taking over him if I was starting a college basketball team right now, and MKG couldn't have possibly made that more obvious than he did today.
But Kidd-Gilchrist may not have even been the most important player for Kentucky in this game.
Especially down the stretch.
That honor would go to Anthony Davis.
Think about this for a second: Kentucky shot 29% from the floor against Louisville. They were 3-16 from three and turned the ball over 20 times. Darius Miller, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb combined to shoot 4-23 from the floor and contributed 16 turnovers, 13 fouls and eight assists as a group. And Terrence Jones, once again, failed to get the memo that Kentucky had a basketball game today.
And Kentucky won without much of a challenge from the Cards down the stretch.
The credit for that goes to Davis.
He was an absolute game-changer in the second half. Davis finished with six blocks on the game, five of which came in the final 20 minutes. His presence on the floor had as much to do with Louisville's 9-35 shooting (25.7%) in the second half as the other four defenders on the floor combined. Anytime the Cards had the ball in the paint, they were looking for Davis. They missed layup after layup simply because they were trying to avoid getting their shot blocked. As a result, Kentucky was able to play just that much tighter and more aggressively on the perimeter, making Louisville's life just that much more difficult offensively.
That shot-blocking alone wasn't what won the game for the Cardinals. It was the Wildcat's ability to clear the offensive glass when Louisville missed all of those shots. Kentucky outrebounded Louisville 57-31. Since we all know rebounding margin is a dead statistic, Kentucky grabbed 78.8% (37 of 47) of the available defensive rebounds, which was almost as impressive as the 48.7% (20 of 41) of available offensive rebounds they collected.
Louisville is one of the top 25 teams in the country on the offensive glass, and Kentucky completed took that aspect of their game away.
That is the most impressive part of this win for Kentucky. In a game that devolved into a foul-ridden, offensively-challenged slug-fest, Kentucky pulled out a win over a heated-rival by being able to muck it up on the glass.
That was a question mark that some (me!) had about the Wildcats earlier this season.
This performance went a long way towards quelling those concerns.
What We Learned
- Terrence Jones was once again a no-show on the offensive end of the floor for the Wildcats, but he did have an impact on this game. The sophomore forward, who came off the bench but started the second half, finished with 11 rebounds in 30 minutes. As we laid out above, UK's rebounding was the most important aspect of the win. Kentucky doesn't necessarily need Jones to be a big-time scorer. They have offensive weapons on their roster and have proven that they can beat quality teams without him providing 15-20 points. Where he can make a difference is in the paint. He's the only player on Kentucky with the strength to be a physical presence inside.
- It cannot be understated how poorly Kentucky's back court played on the offensive end of the floor. I don't think its crazy to say that today's performance was the worst that you will see out of Miller, Teague and Lamb individually all season long. And Kentucky still won fairly easily.
- Kyle Wiltjer just doesn't fit with this Kentucky team. I think that, eventually, he can play a similar role to what Erik Murphy is doing for Florida. But with the makeup of this roster, he just doesn't fit. He's not a shot blocker, he's not a defender, he's not going to get rebounds. He's a face-up four who is ideal playing for a team that has a dominant low-post scoring threat and needs someone to help spread the floor, not on a team that has Anthony Davis on the block and thrives on dribble penetration off the perimeter.
- Anthony Davis shot 12-13 from the free throw line. He was shooting 58.7% coming in.
- Rick Pitino routinely does as good of a coaching job as anyone in the country. From a personnel perspective, Louisville has no business competing with Kentucky on their home floor. Yet the Cardinals were able to erase a 15 point first half deficit to tie the game midway through the second half. Their ability to hit threes, force turnovers and get points in transition means they are rarely going to be out of a game.
- Peyton Siva just doesn't seem like he's the kind of point guard that can run a team. He takes far too many bad jump shots early in a possession and tries far too often to use his athleticism to finish amongst the trees. Kemba Walker went through the same problems as a sophomore. Siva needs to learn a) to pick his spots as a shoot; b) hot to get the rest of his team involved when he is running the show; and c) how to consistently make runners and floaters in the 8-10 foot range. Until that happens, he is always going to be a guy where announcers use the words "could" and "should" to describe.
- Russ Smith is best suited for his role coming off the bench with the makeup of this Louisville team, just like Dion Waiters is being used ideally as the sixth man for Syracuse. Smith is not a point guard, but he's also not a shooting guard in the way that Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith are. Smith is a guy that always makes things happen, whether it is forcing a turnover, hitting three or four shots in a row or missing three or four in a row. He's far too inconsistent from possession to possession to start, but he's got the kind of lightening-in-a-bottle scorer that allows him to change the flow of a game when he enters.
That change of pace, particularly when it is coming against the reserves of Louisville's opponents, is why Smith always seems to have such a big impact when he gets into the game. I am riding shotgun in the Russ Smith bandwagon, but I firmly believe he is the most effective as this group's sixth-man.
- Louisville needs Wayne Blackshear to get healthy and be effective immediately. They simply do not have enough scoring punch on their perimeter. That said, I'm not sure how much impact a freshman that gets inserted into the rotation in January or February will have.
- Louisville is a borderline top 10 right now. At best. And I would have told you the same thing before this week.