LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Basketball fans in the Bluegrass State have had the wind knocked out of them with both Louisville and Kentucky being punched in the gut this week.
The fifth-ranked Cardinals (16-3, 4-2) have lost back-to-back games since entering last weekend as the nation's top-ranked team. Louisville travels to Georgetown on Saturday looking to bounce back from its latest setback, a 73-64 Big East Conference loss at struggling Villanova.
Kentucky fans have even more reason to be concerned.
The young, inconsistent Wildcats were halfway to winning their third consecutive Southeastern Conference game at unranked Alabama before letting it slip away. Kentucky (12-6, 3-2) ended up losing 59-55 — which could be another blemish on its resume if the defending champions need an at-large bid to get into the NCAA tournament. Kentucky hosts LSU Saturday.
"Anytime you play in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten or any great conference," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Thursday, "you're going to have peaks and you're going to have valleys, unless you have one of those great basketball teams that dominates the conference — which is not the case in college basketball this year.
"That being said, what I try to emphasize is just getting better execution-wise leading into March, just playing our best basketball at that time. Keep working on the execution and good things will happen."
Finishing has been a problem in Louisville's losses to then-No. 6 Syracuse — which upset the Cardinals Saturday 70-68 — and Villanova. Tuesday's defeat against the Wildcats was especially frustrating for Pitino because of his team's poor performance at the free throw line.
The Cardinals trailed the Wildcats by as many as 10 points in the first half before rallying to take the lead 52-46 with 8:25 remaining in the game. Villanova closed with a 27-14 run helped by Louisville's 7 of 18 free throw shooting, including missing five of its final six.
Sophomore forward Chane Behanan had an especially rough game, hitting just 3 of 9 from the line and Junior Gorgui Dieng missed both of his second-half attempts.
"I do have concern about our power forwards and what they're shooting from the foul line," Pitino said of Behanan and freshman Montrezl Harrell, who are averaging 54 percent and 52 percent respectively on free throws.
"Anytime they're shooting in the 50 percentile that bothers me, so we have to work on that."
Kentucky has several issues it needs to work through.
The Wildcats are looking to rebuild the chemistry that keyed last week's wins over Tennessee and Auburn. Kentucky appeared especially poised in its 75-65 win over the Volunteers, and hot-shooting second halves clinched victories against the Vols and the Tigers.
In its 22-point win over Auburn, Kentucky players looked for — and found — teammates on offense. The Wildcats shot 67 percent in the second half against the Tigers. Kentucky seemed to have that same trust against Alabama, forging a nine-point halftime lead.
But in the final 6 1/2 minutes against the Crimson Tide, some of Kentucky's freshmen reverted to old individual habits. Alex Poythress fouled out with only six points and five rebounds in 15 minutes while Archie Goodwin was just 2 of 12 from the field and finished with seven points. Sophomore Ryan Harrow (3 of 12, six points) struggled as well from the field as well.
Seven-foot forward Willie Cauley-Stein missed his second straight game following a procedure on his left knee a week ago, which meant another game of prolonged playing time for 6-10 forward Nerlens Noel. The freshman had 13 rebounds, eight points and seven blocks in 39 minutes while sophomore Kyle Wiltjer (35 minutes) added 14 points, including a couple of timely drives to keep the Wildcats in the game.
Coach John Calipari was encouraged by the play of his big men, but he's back to trying to get his Wildcats to "buy in" to a team concept.
"This is a team that is growing and getting better," Calipari said afterward. "We showed signs of that and now we took a step back."
While much of the conference schedule remains for Louisville and Kentucky, the next five games present challenges for both.
The Wildcats have already tripled last year's loss total and have yet to beat a ranked opponent. After hosting LSU, Kentucky travels to No. 23 Mississippi and Texas A&M — which beat the Wildcats on Jan. 12 — before hosting South Carolina and Auburn.
With the Rebels, No. 8 Florida and No. 22 Missouri being the SEC's only ranked teams, Kentucky needs every conference win it can get to boost its NCAA tournament prospects. That means beating teams it's supposed to and snatching a win from one of those ranked squads.
Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall believes it's possible for the Wildcats if they remember that redemption is just a game away.
"They're a young squad and there are going to be good times and bad times," Hall said. "Tuesday night was one of those times where it was half good and half bad. It's going to be up and down with young players and their emotions. ... They can turn the corner, but they just haven't put it all together yet."
Louisville's tournament outlook seems solid despite just one win over a ranked team (against Missouri in November), but the Cardinals enter a five-game stretch with three on the road. After the Georgetown (13-4, 3-3) matchup, Louisville hosts Pittsburgh and Marquette before traveling to Rutgers and No. 24 Notre Dame.
Each upcoming opponent except Rutgers has either been ranked or received votes in the poll this season. Still, Pitino's concern is his Cardinals putting their last loss behind them.
"We move on and get ready to face a very tough Georgetown team," he said.