No. 11 University of Louisville Basketball beat Southern Illinois Wednesday 74-51, which was expected.
What was somewhat unexpected and a pleasant surprise was the Louisville win was fueled by three starters, Jaylen Johnson (9 points, 10 rebounds), Deng Adel (12 points, 12 rebounds) and Mango Mathiang (15 points, 6 rebounds). This in spite of missing Anas Mamoud (concussion).
Most teams are driven by their starters but these Cardinals have been leaning heavily on their bench in the last couple of weeks, a trend which grew troublesome, especially with the starters struggling with their shooting. So this was a much-needed refreshing move in the right direction as almost everybody shot well. And the Cards also still got solid bench play (22 points) including from Ray Spalding (8 points on 4-4 shooting and 4 rebounds) and Matz Stockman (7 points on 3-4 shooting and a really nice first half steal and assist).
The box score was a huge endorsement for Louisville, team stats that included shooting 46 percent with 9 blocks and 8 steals. This is closer to the team that head coach Rick Pitino has envisioned and less like the good defensive and offensively challenged team that some on Planet Red have feared.
This is especially well timed with the date hosting arch rival and sixth-ranked Kentucky 14 days from this game. Part of a five game homestand, which also features a visit from always tough ACC rival Virginia. But those challenges are still on the edge of the radar. Louisville still has time to make the performance against Southern Illinois more of a habit, starting Saturday hosting Texas Southern.
Speaking of UK Basketball, the No. 6 team got a much-needed decisive win hosting Valparaiso Wednesday 87-63. It was Kentucky’s first game and win since being beaten by now second-ranked UCLA Saturday at Rupp Arena, ending the Wildcats home winning streak at 42 straight. It was a loss in which the Bruins discovered some weaknesses in the Cats, and it appears UK learned lessons it took to Valpo.
Kentucky’s rotation (or the lack of an established one) was exposed by UCLA, so it came up with a more formal one against Valpo. The Wildcats were reluctant to play big against the Bruins and did not play well when they did; then they went big against Valpo and played better — especially Bam Adebayo (16 points, 7 rebounds). There were other solid performances, like Malik Monk (15 points) and De’Aaron Fox (9 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists).
The Wildcats (8-1) did this exactly two weeks from their high-profile visit to Louisville, which has the defense and big men to exploit some of these issues. The good news and the challenge for Kentucky is there is still time to refine and improve the product, and there are other challenges ahead before its visit to the River City.
The Wildcats next game is Sunday hosting Hofstra, but there is a huge test a week from Saturday in Las Vegas in The CBS Sports Classic against No. 7 North Carolina, the latest meeting between two of the sport’s top three winningest programs (UK is first, Kansas second and UNC third).
UK head coach John Calipari has been outspoken in saying he does not want his team to be playing its best in December, because if it does, it won’t be in March or April. Calipari wants his very young and athletically gifted players to be challenged, many of them for the first time in their careers. Even if it costs them some losses along the way. Calipari is convinced that the process will produce the team he needs for a real chance at peaking at the right time — the Final Four in Phoenix — and a shot at the program’s ninth national title and first since 2012.