LEXINGTON, Ky. — A Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry game that was supposed to be a lopsided affair was exactly that Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena.
The Cats defeated the Cards, 86-63, jumping out to a double-digit lead on their in-state rivals before three minutes had ticked off the clock and maintaining a comfortable advantage the rest of the way.
As uneven as 19th-ranked Kentucky (9-4) has been this season — and as bad as the Cats looked three days earlier in a 14-point loss at Missouri — this was an expected result. Louisville (2-12) has been much, much worse.
The Cards came into the game at No. 257 in the KenPom ratings, No. 311 in the Torvik rankings, and No. 345 (out of 363 Division I schools) in the NCAA’s NET ratings.
Kentucky was a 23.5-point favorite — the biggest spread in the betting history of this series — and Louisville was marked as a 20-1 underdog before tipoff.
Before the game started, UK coach John Calipari and U of L Coach Kenny Payne met on the sidelines and embraced for several seconds, posing for photographers at courtside. Payne, a former Louisville star in his first season as the Cards’ head coach, spent 10 seasons on the opposite bench as an assistant under Calipari, helping UK advance to four Final Fours, a run that included a national championship in 2012.
Payne’s rough start to his first season as a head coach carried over to the opening moments of his first game back in Rupp Arena.
Kentucky made its first four shots from the field — and six of its first seven attempts — to take a 14-4 lead into the first TV timeout of the game. That span was highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers by freshmen Chris Livingston and Cason Wallace on the Cats’ first two possessions, as well as an active, attacking style from senior forward Jacob Toppin.
UK missed nine of its first 10 3s in Wednesday’s loss at Missouri, and Toppin had spent the previous four games mired in a slump, his playing time decreasing over each outing, bottoming out at just 13 minutes off the bench against Mizzou.
Toppin had 11 points midway through the first half. He hadn’t hit double figures in scoring since going for 14 points in UK’s win over Michigan in London on Dec. 4. He had 15 by halftime and finished the game with a career-high 24 points, plus seven rebounds.
Oscar Tshiebwe managed his seventh double-double in 11 games this season before the end of the first half and finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds. Cason Wallace added 17 points and five rebounds.
Sophomore forward Daimion Collins scored his first bucket since Nov. 23 with a two-handed dunk in the final minute of the first half to give Kentucky a 45-30 advantage at the break.
Freshman Adou Thiero was the second Wildcat off the bench Saturday after playing 17 second-half minutes against Missouri earlier in the week, and all 10 available scholarship players made an appearance before halftime. (CJ Fredrick was out with a finger injury.)
Though in perhaps a sign for the future, Calipari basically went with a six-man rotation — Wallace, Livingston, Toppin, Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler and Antonio Reeves — in the second half.
For the most part, it was an encouraging performance for a Kentucky team that started the season ranked No. 4 nationally but might not be ranked at all when the new poll comes out Monday, though this one came at the expense of yet another underwhelming opponent.
Whether the Cats can play high-level basketball against a top-tier foe remains to be seen. UK’s best victory so far is either Michigan or Yale — depending on the rankings system of choice — and the Cats are 0-3 in “Quad 1” games, according to the NCAA’s ratings. The only three games UK has played against teams in the top 30 of those NET rankings — at Missouri, vs. Gonzaga in the Spokane Arena, and vs. UCLA in New York City — all ended in double-digit defeats.
Of Kentucky’s nine wins this season, only one (Yale) has come against a team inside of the top 100 in the NET ratings. With Southeastern Conference play ramping up from here, UK will get plenty of opportunities to prove itself against higher-quality opponents.
The Cats next face Louisiana State (12-1, No. 77 NET) in Rupp Arena on Tuesday before heading to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama (11-2, No. 7 NET) on Saturday.
UK plays at Tennessee (11-2, No. 3 NET) on Jan. 14 and will have six additional games against teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 after that one.