Kentucky, No. 5 Louisville hit bumps in the road


Kentucky, No. 5 Louisville hit bumps in the road

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.

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Here's how the Ravens can clinch division, home field advantage in Week 15

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Here's how the Ravens can clinch division, home field advantage in Week 15

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Now that the Ravens have clinched a playoff berth, they’re focused on ensuring they don’t have to leave the state of Maryland in January. 

Should the Ravens beat the Jets on Thursday night, they’ll win the AFC North for the second straight season. Additionally, they can clinch the division even with a loss, should the Steelers lose to the Bills on Sunday Night Football.

Baltimore can also clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs with a victory over the Jets and either a Patriots loss or a Chiefs loss.

While that seems promising with three games left to play, the Patriots are headed to play the 1-12 Bengals while the Chiefs are hosting the Broncos. Both games are at 1 p.m., so it's likely the Ravens will have to wait another week to clinch a first-round bye.

And should the Ravens hit the lottery and both the Patriots and Chiefs are upset, the Ravens will clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over the Jets.

With the injuries they’re expected to deal with on Thursday against the Jets, any chance to rest starters and veterans would be a welcome one for the Ravens. Especially considering past Super Bowl teams and how they reached the final game.

Since the Ravens' victory over the 49ers in the 2013 Super Bowl, five out of the last six champions were their conference’s No. 1 seed. 

Over the season, the Ravens have shown they’re up to the task of facing playoff-bound teams, too. As of the end of Week 14, they’ve already played the other five teams currently slotted to make the AFC Playoffs. They’ve gone 4-1 in those games — the lone blemish a 33-28 loss to the Chiefs in Week 3 — and have outscored those opponents 156-100. 

So if the Ravens beat the Jets on Thursday, they’ll certainly be scoreboard watching on Sunday afternoon. 


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Lamar Jackson limited while Mark Andrews and Ronnie Stanley miss Monday practice

Lamar Jackson limited while Mark Andrews and Ronnie Stanley miss Monday practice

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Three days after the Ravens practiced with all 53 members of the active roster, there’s now legitimate injury concerns for the AFC’s top team. 

Tight end Mark Andrews and left tackle Ronnie Stanley both missed practice with a knee injury and a concussion, respectively, whlie Lamar Jackson was a limited participant with an elbow injury. The team will have just two more days to prepare for kickoff against the Jets, a little over 72 hours after the team’s first practice of the week. 

The most notable injury, however, was Jackson’s absence. 

“We’ll see,” coach John Harbaugh said of Jackson’s practice availability this week. “It’s less than 24 hours after the game, it’s hard to say. It’s not a serious injury in that sense. This is day-to-day when we play Thursday night, so we’ll see where we’re at.”

Harbaugh declined to share more about the specific injury to Jackson. 

When asked about Stanley’s concussion, he also declined to share more about the team’s injuries. 

“I’m not going to get into injuries, we just got done playing the game 24 hours ago,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to play a game Thursday night. The guys that are ready to play will play. The guys that aren’t won’t. So just look at the injury report and take it from there.”

While it’s promising that Jackson was just a limited participant, the absences of Andrews and Stanley — and special teamers Anthony Levine and Chris Board — are far more worrisome. 

Stanley has missed just a handful of snaps this season, and played in 100 percent of the snaps against the Bills. 

Andrews played just nine snaps, as a knee injury kept him out of the lineup for the majority of Sunday’s game. 

Should neither of the four that missed practiced be able to go, the Ravens will have to replace their starting left tackle, leading pass-catcher and two special teams starters in short time.