LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- In reality, you could learn more about the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky basketball teams by watching their intrasquad scrimmages than you could by watching their first exhibition games on Thursday night, simply because the opposition was hopelessly outsized.
So I chose, instead of watching either team in person, to watch both on television Thursday night. It was an interesting exercise in seeing the two teams back-to-back, and comparing them more to each other than to the opposition they were playing.
It's too early to truly start comparing the two. But isn't that what we tend to do anyway? Some observations from the victories over NAIA schools, U of L's 93-57 win over Pikeville and UK's 93-61 win over Northwood:
LOUISVILLE OFFENSE: This looks to be a less "stressed" Louisville offense than we've seen in some time, probably since the Elite Eight team of 2009, but more likely since the Elite Eight team of 2008, which seemed to be able to generate offense whenever it wanted through the passing of David Padgett.
There were times last season when the offense just seemed to bog down, or at least labor too hard to create opportunities. But there was a different feel with the Cardinals offense Thursday night, and not just because of the competition.
This team has offensive safety valves inside and out. When Peyton Siva and Russ Smith are on the court together, you have two players who can get into the lane whenever they want, and both did a nice job mixing drives to the rim with passes either back to the perimeter or even a lob here and there. In fact, the lob is there more than it has been, particularly now that the Cards have so many players who are able and willing to beat their man and drive the ball, pulling the defense up away from the baseline. Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock can do the same thing, and Kevin Ware will, too, when he returns to the lineup.
Having that ability makes a huge difference offensively. And even though U of L was playing a much smaller team, that it shot 49.4 percent from the field (54.5 percent from two-point range) is already an improvement over a season ago, and that number should increase as a few quick shots are eliminated. If anything, with so many guys who can create, this team will have to work to make sure it runs enough offense to get the best look possible, not just settling for the first look it gets. KENTUCKY PROGRESS: The Wildcats have come a long way in a week, and John Calipari said so, noting, "We were better than I thought we'd be, but we're a way from where we need to be." Nerlens Noel improved more in one week than probably anyone else on the team.
What Calipari does so well is get guys to understand their strengths, and then play to them. Noel looked twice as comfortable offensively as he did a week ago in the Blue-White game, finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds. And even though they're just freshmen, UK's Willie Cauley-Stein and Noel seemed to show better offensive communication and chemistry than U of L's more experienced bigs, at least in this one game.
The Wildcats shot 61 percent. They turned the ball over 17 times, and that's going to be a problem early in the season with the team's youth. KEY PLAYERS: For Louisville, it's Siva, who looks to have taken it to another level. He's quick but under control, seems to know when to look for his shot and when to pass, and did a better job setting up his passes last night than I've ever seen him do.
"He's become a true point," U of L coach Rick Pitino said. "And it's not just tonight. He's been doing that all summer."
For UK, Archie Goodwin may already be the indispensable man, at least on offense. His ability to create easy offense virtually all by himself relieves a great amount of pressure from the UK attack and winds up generating opportunities for everybody. As he becomes a better passer, UK's offense will benefit. CALIPARI'S THOUGHTS: Calipari used a high number of combinations, even though he played primarily seven guys, and talked at length about his tinkering:
"I want to keep looking. I want to see what's what. I like the big team, I like the two big guys together. I'm fine with that. Nerlens (Noel) was really good today. Willie (Cauley-Stein) was good, Nerlens was really good. I thought Julius (Mays) played steady, which is what he does for us. Ryan in spurts played how he's got to play for us, in spurts, and then he reverts, and then it's okay to get beat or hung up on a screen or stop playing.
It's just like I told them after, I'm just not settling for that. If you want to stay on the court, it's not about missed shots or turnovers, it has nothing to do with that. You can never say he takes me out every time I make a mistake, I can't play, because I don't do that. If you don't sprint back, you're coming out. If you're not rough and the guy throws you out of the way, sit down, you're not ready. If you don't dive for a loose ball, if you don't help a helper, if you're standing there watching the play, you're out. It has nothing to do with a missed shot or turnover.
"You may look at one lineup and say, this one is better. I may not like that starting lineup. You can't start that way, so maybe we start different, and then you just rotate. And I'm telling you, it does not matter who starts, it's who finishes the game, so maybe a starting lineup is different for us. If a kid's ego about starting is the biggest thing, maybe he shouldn't have come to school here. When you're playing seven guys, what does that mean, all seven are going to play, what, 28, 30 minutes? You're going to play all the minutes you can play. Now I've got to figure out if we can stick in Jon Hood which I'm going to do against Transy. I told him and Jarrod (Polson) I've got to go with these seven, and I've got to go figure out stuff. We're so far behind. But I told him, now seeing that Alex just didn't have the energy to finish the game, that means that maybe we shove Jon Hood in there three or four minutes a half while we're playing and that's a rotation where he goes in, and we will look at that against Transy. And Jon Hood is way better, because he is playing within himself."
PITINO POSTGAME: Pitino was slow to draw any conclusions from the game, but couldn't help but be happy with what he's seeing from Russ Smith:
"Obviously it was such a size differential that it was tough to tell how you played. We got to work on our press for the first time, but you don't know how legitimate it is because they're such a small team. ... It's very difficult to tell how we played. We did some good things and got some minutes from people who needed to get their minutes."
"As people I love these guys, they're great guys. As a basketball team, I don't know where we are, because we haven't played anybody."
"Russ Smith has made the best transformation I've seen in a player in one week that I've seen in a long time. He's gone from totally out of control to totally in control. He did a lot of great things tonight. He didn't do the things he usually does, take bad shots that lead to runouts in transition. I'm really excited about Russ right now, because when you have him and Peyton on the court, you have two lightning-quick guards who are in control at all times."
"It's certainly a very deep team. It's not as talented a team as some I've had, but we don't lose very much with substitutions. I can put in Tim Henderson as the 12th man, and we don't lose a thing. And we still have Chane and Kevin. Practices are very really good. And don't think -- I think Chane Behanan is a heck of a basketball player. He just has to grow up a little bit, mature a little bit. The person has to catch up to the basketball player, and when he does, look out. All college guys are like that." DEFENSIVE IMPRESSIONS: UK really isn't containing anyone off the dribble, and you saw several Northwood players drive straight to the rim for layups. But in some ways, Calipari isn't worried about containing people, because UK is inviting teams to come in and challenge its shot blockers. The defense isn't there. Help defense is getting there, but isn't there yet. The ability of so many players to block shots, however, gives them a bit of room for error out on the court. For U of L, the Cardinals should again be one of the nation's top defensive teams. Hancock will need to make some strides as an individual defender, but the Cards have multiple shot blockers (swatted eight in the game's first 16 minutes) and have plenty of guys who return from a dogged defensive unit. A HEAD-TO-HEAD SNEAK PEAK: I can't resist. When these teams play, I have a feeling it is going to be strength against strength all over the court. The bigs will be a battle. The wings are all multi-dimensional. The teams should both be among the best shot-blocking teams in the country. U of L will have an edge in depth and at point guard. UK is probably a better shooting team. You don't want to look too much ahead, but you can't help but anticipate not only what it will look like to see these teams face each other, but to see them develop over the coming weeks.