Throughout November and December, even as their young team was making impressive strides in a difficult nonconference schedule, Kentucky fans had a singular refrain: "Free Enes."
After Friday's resounding 78-63 win at Louisville, perhaps Big Blue Nation should adopt a new slogan for their arena signs, T-shirts and message board signatures: "Enes Who?"
As Kentucky waited for word in the inexorably NCAA eligibility case of highly rated Turkish prospect Enes Kanter, Josh Harrellson -- Kentucky's occasionally maligned would-be backup center -- proved that maybe the Wildcats don't need Enes after all.
Harrellson went 10-of-12 from the field, scored 23 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, and led Kentucky to an easy victory at the KFC Yum! Center. Thanks in large part to his effort -- which even saw the big man drain a 3-pointer, Harrellson's second make (and third attempt) of the season -- Kentucky rolled over an offensively impotent Louisville team hurting from the loss of forward Rakeem Buckles to injury.
Rivalry implications aside, the win solidifies Kentucky's progress before the start of SEC play. The Cats didn't need a quality nonconference victory, but after losses to Connecticut in Maui and North Carolina in Chapel HIll, it was clear UK's freshman-oriented lineup as currently constructed (read: without Kanter) still had plenty of improvements to make if it planned to put together a deep tournament run in March.
The Wildcats have made many of those improvements. After an uneven start, Brandon Knight showed why he was such a cherished prospect. His ability to run Calipari's show while stretching the defense with outside shooting (Knight scored 25 points on 7-of-13 from the field, including 4-of-6 from 3) is a rare luxury few teams in college basketball have. If Knight is this good, Kentucky doesn't need fellow stud freshman Terrence Jones to carry nearly as much of the scoring load. Jones (12 points, eight rebounds, 5-of-11 from the field) is perfectly capable of that, of course, but Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense works better when it has balance. Kentucky found that balance Friday.
Facing that daunting defensive task, Louisville couldn't keep up. The Cardinals have been a vastly improved defensive team this season, thanks in large part to Pitino's tactics, which have seen the classic run-and-gun coach ramp up his pace and create gobs of turnovers in the full-court press. Kentucky kept the turnovers to a minimum and made enough shots, but the real problem for Louisville came on offense.
The Cardinals suffered a six-minute, halftime-straddling drought that left them stuck at 24 points until the 18:30 mark of the second half. After Preston Knowles broke that streak with a breakaway dunk, Louisville scored only four points over the next four minutes. Kentucky built its lead to 44-28 and never looked back, leaving Louisville and its rabid fans in the proverbial dust.
It's a big win for NCAA tournament seeding purposes, of course; any true nonconference road win over a top-20 team qualifies as big. But far more important is what the win means to the rivalry in the Commonwealth.
In nearly every facet of college hoops -- on-court success, recruiting, national profile, media attention -- Kentucky has overtaken Louisville in the two years since John Calipari's arrival in Lexington. Pitino has weathered this storm with varying degrees of success; last year's extortion circus was a black mark, to be sure, but Pitino managed to land a top recruiting class for 2011 despite his travails. This season, he revamped the Cardinals' style and saw them streak to unexpected early-season success, an imprint of his ability to affect the game with X's and O's.
All of these things were positive signs for Louisville fans, indicators that Pitino wasn't about to let his personal and professional rival take over the Commonwealth that easily. All the Cards needed was a win. Instead, Calipari's supreme young talent -- with an assist from an obscure-until-now senior like Harrelson -- took over.
As of today, Kentucky still owns the Commonwealth. And it didn't need Enes Kanter to do so.