LEXINGTON, Ky. – For much of this college basketball season, the Greatest Recruiting Class Ever more closely resembled one superstar and several confused, inconsistent high school All-Americans along for the ride.
Kentucky had Julius Randle and a lot of question marks. Were the rest of the Wildcats' hyped freshmen going to step up for more than a few minutes here or there? Or would they continue to trail in Randle's considerable wake and leave the team's vast potential unfulfilled?
Early in the second half of Kentucky's 73-66 victory in its ferocious annual rivalry game against Louisville on Saturday, we got an answer. By force.
At the 17:55 mark, Randle hobbled and winced his way off the court. Suffering from cramps, he headed to the locker room for IV fluids. Unease rippled through Rupp Arena: Kentucky had seen a nine-point first-half lead reduced to a 43-43 tie; now the strongman who already had bulled his way through the Cardinals for 17 points was gone, too.
Randle returned at the 14:57 mark and tried to go. A minute later, he exited again. This time for good.
"I was saying (to the team doctor), 'Get him back,' " Kentucky coach John Calipari said, smiling.
There was no coming back, so there was no choice. The baby 'Cats would have to beat the defending national champions without their best player. It was high time for The Other Freshmen to shine.
"We knew we had to bring it," point guard Andrew Harrison said.
Harrison brought it, scoring 18 points and playing his best college game to date. He withstood Louisville's carnivorous pressure defense, committing just two turnovers in 34 minutes. And almost all his trouble signs of the previous 12 games – palms raised or hands on head after bad plays, inattention to detail, occasional lack of effort – were gone.
A week ago in this building, Harrison had played just 20 minutes against Belmont. He watched former walk-on Jarrod Polson play his position while he sat next to Calipari on the bench and got a second half full of lecturing about how to play point guard.
Saturday, Harrison looked like a guy who is getting it.
"What I liked when the game was on the line and the game was in the balance, he made good plays," Calipari said. "… Andrew at the end grew up."
So did fellow freshman James Young, contributing 18 points, a career-high 10 rebounds and four assists. Young missed a dozen shots but kept shooting when he was open, and the result was a swished 3-pointer off a curl with 6:24 remaining. That pushed Kentucky's lead from four to seven, and the Cardinals would never get that close again.
And there were the contributions from grizzled sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, key players in last year's meltdown NIT season.
Poythress, who stepped in for most of Randle's minutes in the second half, had an OK stat sheet (seven points, five rebounds) but a profound influence on the outcome – Kentucky was a plus-20 during his 21 minutes of play. Cauley-Stein was nonexistent offensively but grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots. Poythress and Cauley-Stein also had the athleticism and defensive tenacity to switch screens out top and harass Louisville guards Russ Smith and Chris Jones.
All told, it was a study in maturation for a 10-3 team that had started the year ranked No. 1, but failed to beat a big-time opponent until now. And for an 11-2 Louisville team that started the year No. 3 but has lost to both high-profile opponents it has faced – North Carolina on a neutral court, now Kentucky – several weaknesses were on display.
Smith, a 6-foot senior who had a jaw-dropping slam over the 6-9 Randle in the first half, scored 19 points. He also took 20 shots. He was 0-for-5 from 3-point range and missed half his 10 free throws. With the game tied at 53, he reverted to the Hero Ball approach that has occasionally plagued him the past two years – hoisting bad shots and driving heedlessly.
"I don't think Russ played a particularly good game from a mental standpoint," coach Rick Pitino said. "I think he took too many ill-advised, quick shots…"
Part of the reason Smith and Jones (13 shots, 18 points) took so much upon their own shoulders was the nonexistence of Louisville's front line offensively. Everyone knew the center position wouldn't produce much for the Cardinals – a combined five points from starter Mangok Mathiang and backup Stephan Van Treese – but the power forward spot was a total dud as well.
Montrezl Harrell is a tremendous athlete who has no place in Louisville's set offense at present. He took two shots and made them both – a layup off a steal and a putback. Combine that with his five-point, five-foul performance against North Carolina and it's hard to figure where the first-round NBA draft stock talk is coming from.
Meanwhile, junior Chane Behanan did nothing other than compete on the glass (seven rebounds). He took three shots he could not make, and predictably missed them all. He committed three turnovers. He had zero steals, zero assists, zero blocks, zero trips to the foul line.
The biggest challenge for this Louisville team may be thinking their way through tough games. Last year's champs had a rock-solid leadership core with Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Luke Hancock. Now it's Hancock and a group of upperclassmen who have yet to prove their leadership abilities.
In stark contrast, Kentucky's youth stepped forward.
"They showed much more maturity than what everybody was saying," Pitino said of Kentucky. "I was hearing all these things and I thought they showed great maturity tonight."
The next step in the maturation process will be repeating this level of competitiveness and poise in the weeks to come. It may not be an unbroken line of progress from this point forward, but this was a big step up.
"I'm hoping (the fans) enjoyed it, enjoyed the growth of this team," Calipari said. "We're putting a team together, and that's what we should be enjoying right now."