Kentucky’s game against Louisville Saturday is going to be a much bigger national story this year than it has been recently because the Cardinals are relevant again in the national title picture.
Louisville was No. 1 before losing to Texas Tech and Kentucky was No. 1 before losing to Evansville. Both are on most every college basketball analyst’s potential Final Four list.
Former UK All-American Mike Pratt calls Louisville a “benchmark game” for Kentucky, which lost to Ohio State on Saturday.
“To me, it’s more about seeing where you are deficient going into conference play and what you still need to correct,” said Pratt, the UK Radio Network color analyst. “Louisville is the type of team you are going to have to go through in March to get to a Final Four and the Cards right now have as good a chance to get to the Final Four as anyone.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari joked after his team’s win over Georgia Tech that a team like Louisville might be 20 points better than his team. Then he told his post-game radio show audience the margin might be 30 points.
Sporting News senior writer Mike DeCourcy thinks 6-7 Louisville junior forward Jordan Nwora could be a match-up nightmare for the Wildcats.
“It’s easy to forget what a magnificent job P.J. Washington did on Nwora in last year’s game because you look back at the box (score) and Jordan had 17 points, which was more or less his average,” DeCourcy said. “But it took 7-of-17 shooting to get there, and he made only one 3-pointer. P.J. had four blocks in that game. His defense was massive.
“Kentucky doesn’t have anyone like that now. Can EJ Montgomery keep up? Is Keion Brooks ready to deal with one of college basketball’s best players? Honestly, I’m not sure either of those is ideal for Kentucky, so it may be about how much help the Wildcats are able to give against him.”
Montgomery has yet to show he can stop an elite scorer. Brooks has played well at times this month but Nwora is an older, more experienced and stronger player.
For Kentucky, the biggest factor is at point guard where DeCourcy says the Cats have “one significant advantage” over Louisville.
“Louisville has three bodies they can throw at Ashton Hagans to give him different defensive challenges, but none has yet proven to be a high-level Division I point guard,” the Sporting News basketball writer said. “Hagans can help deal with the Nwora threat by making it difficult for the Cardinals’ playmakers to get him the ball.”
DeCourcy has been a Hagans fan for quite some time and that admiration has only grown this year.
“Ashton has been really smart with his offense. His game against Georgia Tech was a terrific illustration of how great his decision-making has become,” DeCourcy said. “He turned the ball over six times, so it was not a perfect game, but he missed only two shots, scored 21 points and passed for seven assists.
“Georgia Tech had no answer for him. He’s got to be great against Louisville.”
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner called Hagans a “stud” and future first-round NBA draft pick after that game and Hagans will need to control the flow on both ends of the court against Louisville.
The X-factor for Kentucky could be 7-foot center Nick Richards, the player Calipari says could be the nation’s best center. His production has been much more consistent this season but Louisville has both size and strength to throw at him.
“I think the biggest problem is strength. Steven Enoch is 6-10, 255 (pounds). That’s going to be the most important challenge for Nick,” DeCourcy said. “Can he make it more about his own movement and length than Steven makes it a game of power and force?
“Enoch is not confined to playing on the baseline. He’s a very good shooter and moves well, so it’s not just about posting up and trying to bully Richards. It’s about how he can leverage that movement to put his power in position that Richards can’t contend with it.
“How fast does he get to the block? How quickly does he hit the lane after setting ball screens. How does Kentucky choose to defend those ball screens in the first place? Kentucky has used Nick so well and so wisely. This will be an important challenge for him.”
Not only is Lynn Bowden perhaps the most versatile football player ever at Kentucky, but recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow says there is one other intangible he has that is normally overlooked.
“He is the smartest player we have ever had at UK,” Marrow said. “He was definitely a team guy, too. Both Benny Snell and Josh Allen got a lot of credit last year but Lynn wants to win for this state and this university. He put us on his back. That’s why he’s playing in the Belk Bowl. But he’s also smart enough to figure out how to make it all work.”
Bowden earned first-team All- American honors and won the Paul Hornung Award given to the nation’s most versatile player after moving full-time from receiver to quarterback in game six and leading UK to a 5-2 finish. The put UK into the Dec. 31st Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech in what will be Bowden’s final game before he heads to the NFL.
Bowden was regarded as one of the best, if not the best, athletes ever to come out of Youngstown, Ohio — a hotbed for football. Yet his academics and other issues scared some teams. Not Kentucky.
“He’s a very misunderstood kid,” Marrow said. “He’s probably my favorite guy off the field, too, but sometimes people can judge you by what they hear and your tattoos.
“He’s probably the cleanest guy you could have on your team. He doesn’t hang out. He doesn’t go to bars. The night he rushed for over 200 yards against Louisville a lot of guys were celebrating but he was staying home with his son.”
Bowden even forced Marrow to change his thinking.
“I literally learned that you don’t judge a book by its cover,” Marrow said. “I got caught early in the recruiting process thinking some negative things until I got to know him as a person. I was wondering, ‘Do we want to recruit him?’ Thank God we did.
“He’s one of the nicest guys ever. Did he have an attitude? Of course he did because we told him he would get the ball. He learned his freshman year how to change that and it was a big learning curve. We are very thankful for how he pushed our team.
“Some people shut it down if they get upset. Not him. He’s an ultimate competitor. He may tell you how he is feeling but when it comes to competition, he plays. He could play defensive back and would compete. He never once let us down on the field and he’s just a special, special guy for so many reasons.”
It was during her sophomore season when UK volleyball star, met basketball player Nick Richards at a party. Edmond said she just kind of “hung out” with the freshman before he finally asked, “Do you want to date?”
Now they have been dating for two years.
“He is definitely the shy one and I am definitely the outgoing one in the relationship,” Edmond said.
Yet when it came time for her volleyball senior day, there was Richards walking out with her and her parents and being introduced as Edmond’s boyfriend.
“It was not hard to get him to do it like I thought it might be. I was like, ‘I want you to be out there and I need you to be out there’ and he was like okay with it. It was not even a question,” Edmond said.
“It was kind of weird to be honest. I thought he would be like, ‘No I don’t want to go out there.’ But he was willing to go out there for me and I really appreciated it. It was not the best situation for him because he does not like being out in public if he does not have to be.”
Edmond was an all-American and two-time SEC Player of the Year while Richards struggled for consistency his first two seasons. However, Edmond said having Richards to talk to and just watch was a blessing for her.
“Sometimes he just puts things in perspective for me. Sometimes I feel like I am dealing with a lot and I know he is on a bigger scale. He’s under a tiny microscope where he can’t really do anything without everybody knowing,” Edmond said.
“It’s not really the same for me or at least not anywhere close to the same level. I think sometimes it humbles me when I see his work ethic with him being in the gym all the time. I think for me it was frustrating to see how much he was in the gym and it wasn’t transferring to the court for him when I was not in the gym as much as him and things were coming easy for me.
“I think there was a sense of regret and humbleness to where if he was working that hard, there’s no reason I can’t do that too. So he has pushed me to open up my eyes and look to hard work more than just my given talent. He made me a better player just because I started trying to work as hard as he has for the last two years.”
Kentucky’s 2020 football signing class could be the best talent-wise that coach Mark Stoops has signed at UK and what should really bode well for the future is the talent and depth in the offensive and defensive lines.
“I think it’s a really good class if you’re looking at the O-line and D-line. Offensive line with five guys and five quality players there. And then defensive line we have three, if you put Sam (Anaele) in that group, who is a really big guy, much like a Josh Allen, you have four along the front right there,” Stoops said. “It’s really a strong class with our front guys. “Stoops said UK went into the recruiting class knowing it needed to bolster numbers in the offensive line and did with R.J. Adams, Deondre Buford, Josh Jones, John Young and Jeremy Flax.
“Really big, long, athletic guys,” Stoops said.
No surprise that offensive line coach John Schlarman played a huge role in getting both depth and quality based on what UK’s line has done the last four years.
“He’s more of a teacher and that’s how I learn. The physical aspect of football has never been hard and the mental part has not been bad but believe he’ll just make it even easier for me because he’s just a genuine person,” Flax said.
Adams said Schlarman is “really cool” and a family guy that he liked.
“I can relate to him and his coaching style. I like coach Stoops, too. He is smart and he can teach me a lot. They never backed off me but I really, really like coach Schlarman,” Adams said.
Quote of the Week: “You have to be very talented to change positions in the middle of the season, especially if you’re going to play quarterback. It’s impressive what he did this season. I think playing quarterback will help him in the draft. It shows he’s willing to play anywhere to help his team win,” former NFL star Paul Hornung on UK junior Lynn Bowden winning the Paul Hornung Award given to the nation’s most versatile player.
Quote of the Week 2: “For our next one, we are toying with the idea of one on (John) Calipari and his years at Kentucky or maybe coach (Joe) Hall. Whatever it is, we are looking at doing it in March or April,” former UK basketball player Cameron Mills on what his next Kentucky basketball documentary might be.