Kentucky entered Saturday afternoon in dire need of positivity.
After the 89-75 loss to the Missouri Tigers in Columbia to open SEC play, the Wildcats appeared to be in bad shape. With four defeats in the first two months of the season and no breakthrough wins to speak of, the UK were still looking for something to brag about.
Enter a rival opponent who is seemingly unable to play two full halves of basketball. The Louisville Cardinals presented a turnaround opportunity for the Cats, even if it wasn’t one that would draw attention to an NCAA tournament resume.
Taking the cards inside Rupp Arena was exactly what the doctor had ordered, as the prescription listed a season-high field goal percentage (60), a record scoring night for Jacob Toppin ( 24) and a reason for Kentucky to believe in making it through 2023.
Here are three takeaways from the 86-63 win:
Cutting rotation is crucial for success
Although the season is two months old, Calipari is still talking about tinkering with the roster, figuring out where certain players are and who will be the last five on the pitch during the critical period. That in turn means the Wildcats are behind.
Shooter CJ Fredrick suffered a dislocated finger, which means player rotation will be reduced by one for what should be at least until the middle of January. While 10 players still saw the floor for the UK on Saturday, it was clear for the first time this season that a group of five players could see a large proportion of the minutes.
Sahvir Wheeler and Cason Wallace occupied the backcourt, while Chris Livingston and Toppin started side-by-side with Oscar Tshiebwe for the first time this season. All but Livingston would see 30 minutes or more in the win over the Cards. Shooting guard Antonio Reeves saw his playing time dwindle, but served as a sixth man of sorts with 16 minutes to himself.
With or without Fredrick in the picture, this is clearly the way forward for Kentucky. The tinkering time is over, because the SEC game has begun. While some players may not have been shaken fairly in terms of opportunities, that can’t be something Calipari is worried about moving forward. The Alabama and Tennessee of the world will be in for a treat if there’s an endless rotation of attackers coming and going, because none of them can find a rhythm.
Take the single team out of the 2014-15 squad, and most of the success in the UK under Calipari has been with a smaller rotation of players. Pure NBA talent may not be there in this group of Cats, but the recipe for wins clearly doesn’t involve four or five players going 5-10 minutes off the bench.
Building blocks for Jacob Toppin
Say what you want about the caliber of adversary that the cardinals are (I’ll come back to that later). What Toppin was able to do on the court on Saturday has the potential to open up that huge world of potential that surrounded him at the start of the season.
Talk of who he was going to be in the NBA Draft suddenly turned into talk of whether or not to get him off the bench for the Wildcats. As you can imagine, this weighed rather heavily on the senior:
“Honestly, I’ve probably hit rock bottom,” he told reporters.
Toppin always had a smile on his face when he talked about having the opportunity to play in Louisville. He clearly understands what rivalry means. The light finally appeared for the Brooklyn native when he saw the red and black enter Rupp Arena. He took full advantage of his return to the starting lineup, scoring 24 points on 10-15 shooting while adding seven rebounds and two assists.
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“I went through a difficult period that I needed to get out of it. I had a lot of support from my teammates and my coaching staff, and it feels good to have my old self back. I feel good mentally and physically.”
Seeing the ball go into the basket can do wonders for a basketball player’s confidence. Toppin hadn’t seen much of that, as he scored 13 combined points in the previous four games, including a goose egg in the loss to Mizzou.
Whether it’s against the ’96 Chicago Bulls, Louisville, or Tates Creek High School (thanks to the Commodores), points are points, and points help your team win. Kentucky needs Toppin to perform to win games consistently.
Everyone will see how his progress continues in the SEC game, but 10 buckets in a rivalry game is a hell of a way to start regaining his confidence.
Now about Louisville…
Take the result with a big grain of salt
The 2-12 Louisville Cardinals are a bad basketball team. Big Blue Nation witnessed this first hand. Coach Kenny Payne tries to squeeze effort and ability from his players, but the way the roster has been constructed is detrimental to his success. Take out El Ellis, and I’m not quite sure where the score would come from, even on a semi-regular basis.
Aside from personal and mental victories like Toppin’s, no one should feel like the major questions have been answered enough based on what transpired over the weekend. Although this is a beating at a rival, it does not constitute a resume and does not contribute anything of major substance in the grand scheme of things.
Kentucky is still a team that needs consistent energy and tenacity, especially if they don’t want to get trampled in the SEC. Surpassing Louisville isn’t something to hang your hat on and won’t do you any good when March rolls around.
The real answer must come on Tuesday, Jan. 3, when LSU arrives in Lexington after a 60-57 victory over the then. 9 Arkansas. The Tigers will not be vying for an SEC title this season, but will play keeper for the UK this week.
If the Cats are serious about moving on and hitting their stride, then a convincing enough win over LSU has to be in the cards.
Victory over Louisville game notes can be found here.
Everything Calipari said after the match can be found here.
Want the latest on national football and basketball scouting, including Cats targets? Head to SI All American for the latest news, blogs and updates on the nation’s best prospects.
Sports Illustrated also offers up-to-the-minute insight, information, and details for the players. check it out here.
. Three points retain win Kentucky over Louisville