LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It started well before tip-off with some talking and yelling and bumping in the halls because I guess when you tell a bunch of college students they ought to hate each other they tend to start hating each other, even if they don't exactly know why.
So while Rick Pitino and John Calipari smiled and hugged, it was clear the players were having none of it. The result was three technicals in the first 45 seconds of Saturday's game between Louisville and Kentucky, and a forearm shiver by DeMarcus Cousins that rocked Jared Swopshire's head.
"My players were talking," said Louisville's Rick Pitino. "They said, 'Coach, he just got smashed in the head.'"
And he did.
The video evidence is conclusive.
"I was just going for the ball," Cousins explained afterward, and if you believe that I've got a John-Calipari-will-coach-at-Memphis-forever T-shirt I'd like to sell you. Cousins clearly wasn't "just going for the ball." He started out going for the ball, but then it got rough, and he snapped, and he put a forearm into Swopshire's head, and the refs went to the monitor to sort things out.
What they saw, I have no idea. But what the rest of the nation saw -- including CBS Sports' Clark Kellogg and Tim Brando -- was a cheap shot that should've probably led to Cousins being ejected in the game's opening minute. Either way, the officials only issued a technical, which allowed Cousins to play on. He finished with 18 points and 18 rebounds and was the difference in Kentucky's 71-62 victory here at Rupp Arena.
"It would've been nice to have him out of the game," Pitino said with a smile. "It would've been 18 rebounds less."
Before we go any farther let me say that, yes, I know the game was rough on both sides, and that, yes, I realize Cousins took a knee to the head in the scramble, which seemed to spark the forearm shiver. But that's beside the point. The point is that Cousins blasted Swopshire in a pretty obvious way, and that a different crew with the guts to eject a high-profile player from a high-profile game would've probably watched that replay on the monitor and ejected a high-profile player from a high-profile game.
And that's the greatest threat to Kentucky's national title hopes. It's not the inexperienced backcourt. Or the lack of aggression against a zone. Or even Calipari, though opposing fans bring it up ad nauseum.
No, the biggest threat to Kentucky's national title hopes is that DeMarcus Cousins seems a little unbalanced and capable of snapping at any time. Or, as Louisville's Edgar Sosa reportedly put it after the game, Cousins is a "nutcase." The guy is capable of getting 20 and 15 in the Final Four against Kansas or of throwing a punch at Sherron Collins before the first media timeout.
Cousins almost always looks angry, almost always looks like he's ready to lose it. And though that is at least partly why he's a dominating force in the paint, it's also why Calipari would be wise not to count on Cousins consistently being type of factor he was against Louisville.
"You see DeMarcus get fouled hard, and he gets up and he's ready to fight," said freshman teammate John Wall, who started slow against the Cards but finished with 17 points, four assists and two steals. "People are going to start judging him not just by how he plays, but by how he handles himself on the court."
Actually, that's already happening. Every NBA scout I've spoken with in the past month insists Wall will be the No. 1 pick in June's draft, regardless of which team gets that pick, but that the second spot remains up for grabs. Could be Derrick Favors or Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu or Xavier Henry. But based on talent and physical gifts, it ought to be DeMarcus Cousins, a 6-foot-11, 270-pound forward with an NBA-ready body. When he's focused, Cousins is college basketball's best big man. But when he loses focus, he's the sulking giant with an attitude problem on the verge of doing something stupid and costly, and there's no good way to predict which version will emerge in any given game.
Against Sam Houston State, Cousins was college basketball's best big man.
(He got 27 points and 18 rebounds.)
|DeMarcus Cousins' elbows don't make contact with the Cardinals -- on this play. (AP)|
(He got five points and five rebounds.)
Against Louisville, Cousins was both.
(He got 18 and 18 and a technical foul.)
And that's the scary thing for Kentucky going forward, that Cousins is talented enough to lead the Wildcats to a national title but reckless enough to screw it up with one ill-timed push or shove or curse word or forearm shiver. Truth is, he's been this way as long as anybody can remember, and few seem optimistic that he'll break the mold. Deep down, DeMarcus Cousins will likely always be on the edge.
I know it.
You know it.
Calipari knows it.
And he knows opposing teams know it, too.
"He's kind of like a kid I had at Memphis named Joey Dorsey," Calipari said. "The other team used to do whatever they could to get his goat because they knew he'd lose it. Well, I think Louisville came in to try to get this kid's goat, and we told him they were going to do that."
And they won't be the last.
I know it.
You know it.
Calipari knows it.
And Cousins knows it, too.
How he reacts will be crucial to the long-term goals of Kentucky.
Because the next time Cousins puts a forearm in somebody's head, the refs might do their jobs.