Grown-Up Kentucky a Heavyweight After Ousting Louisville in Sweet 16 Thriller

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 29, 2014

Kentucky's Andrew Harrison (5), Julius Randle (30), Alex Poythress (22) and Aaron Harrison (2) react to a call during the second half of an NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game against the Louisville Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip

Kentucky already proved it can dish out punishment by beating top-seeded and undefeated Wichita State, but against archrival Louisville in the Sweet 16, the Wildcats showed they can take a punch, too. Despite leading for a grand total of 50 seconds the whole game, Kentucky hung tough until a late rally saved Big Blue’s season in a 74-69 classic.

Wildly inconsistent during the regular season, Kentucky has found its footing in the crucible of March Madness. Adversity that might have sunk the ‘Cats earlier in the year—an ankle injury to Willie Cauley-Stein, James Young fouling out—didn’t keep them from battling out every possession against the defending national champs to make it to the Elite Eight.

Louisville spent most of the game playing like its 2013 self, with Luke Hancock (last year's Final Four MOP) raining three-pointers and Mangok Mathiang doing a fine impression of shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng. Against a team that spent the regular season plagued by turnovers and poor long-range shooting, the Cardinals' high-pressure 'D' made for a singularly daunting matchup.

For all that, the Wildcats gave as good as they got, keeping the turnover count to a respectable 12 (six below Louisville's takeaway average) and knocking down some clutch shots. None was bigger than the go-ahead three-pointer drained by Aaron Harrison, whose struggles from beyond the arc sabotaged Kentucky more than once in the early season.

As Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports noted, Harrison wasn't the only Wildcat who stood tall under pressure in this game.

Having won two close games over two outstanding opponents, the ‘Cats—once a disappointment waiting to happen—are again looking like the title contenders of their preseason billing. Michigan will be the favorite by seeding when the two teams meet in Sunday’s Elite Eight action, but all the momentum belongs with the squad from Lexington.

One of the most promising developments for Kentucky’s immediate future is the sudden emergence of Dakari Johnson. Silent in his first two Big Dance starts, the hulking center blitzed Louisville for 15 points and six rebounds in Cauley-Stein’s absence. Having him as a viable weapon alongside Julius Randle will allow Kentucky to put unparalleled pressure on opposing frontcourts.

Considering that the Wolverines only narrowly escaped after being pushed around by Tennessee’s bruising forwards, John Beilein’s team will not be pleased at the prospect of facing an energized Johnson along with the suddenly confident Andrew Harrison (14 points and seven assists against the Cards).

The outlook isn’t all rosy for Kentucky, whose already unsteady defense will really take a hit if Cauley-Stein’s ankle keeps him from controlling the paint. In the postgame press conference, John Calipari noted "It's not a good ankle injury, let me just put it that way."

In the shot blocker's absence, Russ Smith did nearly as much damage to the Wildcats’ D as Cleanthony Early had done for Wichita State, and that’s not the kind of precedent Coach Cal wants to set heading into the regional final. However, outstanding offense has been enough to overcome those defensive miscues in two straight huge wins, and knowing they can beat great teams might be even more valuable to the green Wildcats than a few extra defensive stops. 

They waited until it was almost too late, but the ‘Cats who scored the No. 1 ranking in the preseason polls have finally come out to play.