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Sowing seeds of discontent: The Cats and Cards both face a tough March

by Mark Coomes

For 10 weirdly tumultuous days, the comings and goings of Charlie Strong and Bobby Petrino put Kentucky in a gridiron state of mind that supplanted the commonwealth’s chronic obsession with basketball.

The temporary insanity has passed, and not a second too soon.

The regular season ends six weeks from Saturday.

Cats Coach John Calipari

Cats Coach John Calipari

The University of Kentucky has 14 games remaining; the University of Louisville has 12. But the operative number is zero – the margin of error both teams face in their hunt for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

UK currently ranks 13th in the Ratings Percentage Index, a tool used by the NCAA Selection Committee to empirically evaluate top contenders. That makes the Wildcats a 4 seed, which sounds pretty good until you learn this:

Since 2000, only 40 percent of 4 seeds even made the Sweet 16. Just 12 percent made the Final Four. (U of L did it twice, in 2005 and 2012; UK did it in 2011.)

U of L ranks 30th in the RPI, which makes the Cardinals an 8 seed. Ugh.

Since 2000, half of all 8 seeds lost in the first round. Only three made the Sweet 16.

Bottom line: As it currently stands, the odds are against our local heroes even surviving the first weekend, let alone crashing the Final Four.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Cats and Cards were ranked first and third in the preseason polls but have spent the last two months playing themselves out of the top 10.

Last week, however, both started playing their way back in.

Kentucky began by taking a small step back to take a huge step forward. Last Tuesday’s overtime loss at Arkansas looks bad to the computers – the Razorbacks rank 61st in the RPI – but was a thing of beauty to humans who understand the physical realities of college basketball.

Non-conference wins over No. 26 Minnesota and No. 41 SMU prove that Arkansas is a formidable team when it wants to be. The mood strikes most frequently at home. The Hogs are notorious for playing their Boston Butts off in Bud Walton Arena, a brutal place to play when the crowd is properly motivated.

Kentucky blue makes Hog Nation see red. The freshman-dominated Wildcats tuned out the riotous clamor and some atrocious officiating to log their steeliest performance of the season. It took a spectacular last-second dunk to prevent the grueling game from carrying over to a second overtime.

The Cats showed more March bravado in losing on the road at Arkansas than in winning at home over Louisville. Their execution was lacking at times, but their effort and cohesiveness was not. After one big play, star forward Julius Randle bear-hugged one of the Harrison twins and punctured the perception that the alpha male Texans can’t happily coexist.

Defeat was a blessing in disguise. A win might have underscored the misbegotten notion that great talent conquers all. There’s nothing like the sting of a loss to make a gifted young team take a hard look at its tactical shortcomings

UK bounced back with a surprisingly resourceful home win over Tennessee on Saturday.

The Volunteers probably won’t make the NCAA tournament, but they possess enough beef and experience to test teams that will. UK passed the test with unexpected alacrity.

For the first time this season, the Cats were dominated on the boards and in the paint. So they strafed Tennessee from the three-point and free-throw lines instead, uncharacteristically sinking seven of 16 shots from the former and 23 of 24 from the latter.

Whether point guard Andrew Harrison’s superb performance – 26 points, three assists, no turnovers – was a genuine breakthrough or an overdue eruption remains to be seen. Either way, the big game had to be a big relief. His confidence is peaking at the right time.

The long-term concern with UK is that most of its points continue to come from bursts of individual brilliance instead of crisp teamwork. Better teams with better athletes and smart defensive game plans can take away star players’ pet moves.

The Cats can throw haymakers as well as any team in the country. But can they counterpunch? When the pressure is on, can they trick good teams into giving up good shots – and not be tricked at the other end themselves?

Kentucky is on the right path, though. Its gaggle of talented teens is gradually maturing into a bona fide, unified team. If the Cats improve over the next six weeks at the same rate they progressed over the last six, they will be a team to fear in March.

Louisville, on the other hand, isn’t refining its identity so much as inventing a new one on the fly.

The 2012-2013 Cards were NCAA champs.

The 2012-2013 Cards were NCAA champs.

This team bears little resemblance, physically or tactically, to the 2013 championship squad. It is missing three starters, a key reserve and any semblance of the high-post offense that made the Cards a handful in the halfcourt last year.

Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear have switched roles as starter and sixth man. A Cinderella walk-on, Tim “Wichita” Henderson has inherited Kevin Ware’s role as a trusted backcourt reserve.

Russ Smith’s Russdiculousness, a mixed blessing still, is the only major carryover. Except for the coach, who found himself in mid-January still puzzling over how to best deploy the undersized and mostly inexperienced troops he now commands.

Rick Pitino seemed to finally accept last week that dismissing Chane Behanan killed any hope for the Cards to have traditional inside-outside balance. He committed wholeheartedly to playing small ball.

Cards Coach Rick Pitino

Cards Coach Rick Pitino

Pitino’s Neutrinos played like they were shot out of a particle accelerator in beating Houston and Connecticut. Lineups that featured only one player taller than 6 feet 7 slashed and swirled their way to a plus-19 advantage on the backboards and a plus-51 on the scoreboard.

Clobbering Houston by 39 points was no surprise; the Cards are merciless executioners of mediocre teams. But dropping 15 three-pointers and seeing Blackshear embrace his new role with a career-high 23 points indicated that Wednesday’s rout was a cut above the average beatdown.

It carried over at Connecticut, a tough team backed by a rowdy crowd. A fluky avalanche of threes was not required. Instead U of L ripped a page out of Kentucky’s playbook and dominated the lane, blocking seven shots and out-rebounding the Huskies by 50 percent.

It took 19 tries, but U of L finally earned a “quality win.”

Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell played his best game as a collegian, with 18 points, 13 boards and three blocks in 39 minutes. As with Andrew Harrison, time will tell if the performance marked a breakthrough or an aberration. If it’s the latter, Louisville will be hard pressed to play much beyond St. Patrick’s Day.

The new small ball approach leans heavily on Harrell, Hancock and Smith. They must stay healthy, productive and out of foul trouble. They also must accommodate the return of point guard Chris Jones, who sat out last week’s games with nagging injuries.

Will Jones accept a new role as backup to Terry Rozier? The freshman earned every tick of the 59 minutes he logged against Houston and UConn, quietly providing three things U of L sorely needs: rebounds (11), assists (nine) and judicious guard play (two turnovers, his ninth and 10th of the season).

If Jones regains his old role, will he stop smothering the halfcourt offense with his juco proclivities for shooting too often and dribbling too much?

If he can, Pitino will have plenty of neutrinos to fire at what, for seeding purposes, amounts to a five game season: home and home against Cincinnati (No. 23 in the RPI) and March rematches with Memphis (40), SMU (41) and UConn (31).

Kentucky has only three games left against top-50 teams: home and home against No. 8 Florida and a road trip to No. 50 Missouri. Given the Cats’ youthful penchant for indulging inferior teams, visits to LSU (66) and Ole Miss (60) are dangerous too.

UK’s upside is unrivaled. U of L’s is unknown. Both have six weeks to ramp up for March runs that they hope won’t end until April.

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