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Extended thoughts: Louisville 87, Miami 74

The best time of the year in the Derby City is back.

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Louisville v Miami Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The 2012-13 season notwithstanding, cautious optimism is usually as high as I allow myself to get during the first few weeks of any Louisville basketball season. Having said that, it would be hard for me to be more encouraged by a season-opening performance than I am after Tuesday night’s road throttling of what should be a decent enough Miami team.

Let’s jump right into it.

—In the days and weeks leading up to Tuesday night, Chris Mack made little effort to hide just how unhappy he was with having to play this game on night one. During his postgame press conference, he joked about now loving the conference road game on opening night, but also shared some insight into why he might have been so apprehensive about the way the schedule was laid out.

“We sort of overhauled how we’re playing offensively,” Mack said. “In fairness, Miami probably didn’t have any film on it, maybe a little bit of the Bellarmine game. We got some back cuts, did a good job screening. We can do a better job screening, and we’re going to as time goes on. I just thought it was more conducive to the personnel that we had. So I was pleased outside of the first four minutes, when we turned it over 4-5 times.”

It might not be an entirely new offense, but last night certainly looked a lot different than what we saw in year one under Mack. As awesome as it was watching that offense at work — the Cards shot a scorching 54.0 percent from the field and 47.4 percent from three — my hunch is that Mack is still a little annoyed he couldn’t save the grand reveal of this new look until the end of the month when Louisville begins a four-game stretch that features Western Kentucky, Michigan, Pitt and Texas Tech.

—I want everyone to know that I’m trying really, really hard to not be over the top about my Samuell Williamson enthusiasm.

He isn’t making it easy.

We haven’t had a freshman who can do these types of things since ... Francisco Garcia?

In today’s game, the two easiest spots in college basketball for a freshman to come in and contribute immediately are shooting guard and power forward. Typically, kids who play those positions are fully developed and closer to their ceilings than big men, point guards or versatile wings. We’ve seen that firsthand over the years. Guys like Chane Behanan, Taquan Dean and Jerry Smith were all ready to come in and start immediately. They also didn’t improve as much over the course of their careers as guys like Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva or Garcia did. So the fact that Williamson is playing the three and looking as polished as he does is .... well it’s very cool.

Williamson looks — and I hate saying this because it feels like piling on a kid who doesn’t need any more of that sort of thing — like the player we were all hoping V.J. King was going to be as a freshman. He’s physically ready, he’s composed, he has no monster deficiency, and he just (awful basketball cliche incoming) has that look.

The ebbs and flows of starting lineups are impossible to predict this early on (remember, Jordan Nwora wasn’t a starter for Louisville 12 months ago), but it’s hard for me to see Williamson still coming off the bench by the time we’re into the belly of conference play. Maybe I’m wrong and he remains a 20-25 minute sixth man, but he certainly has the look of a guy who is going to demand a larger role than that if this Cardinal team is going to end its season in Atlanta.

—Coaches always talk about how the vast majority of mistakes in a man-to-man-defense revolve around help. Guys helping too much, guys helping at the wrong time, guys not being aware that they were supposed to help, etc.

It’s safe to say after watching Tuesday’s game and last week’s Bellarmine exhibition that this is where Louisville’s primary issue defensively is as well. For instance, when you see the other team’s 5’5 point guard beat his man off the bounce and start driving straight at your 6’10 center and 6’6 forward, you probably don’t need to leave your man — who is about to become Miami’s all-time leading three-point shooter — wide open in the corner to sprint into the lane and help out. We did that multiple times with D.J. Vasiljevic, which should provide some easily teachable moments during film sessions this week.

—Not sure when the next time we’re going to see those road red unis is going to be (we have two neutral court games before visiting Lexington Basketball Academy at the end of December), but I already miss them. Not my favorite look of all-time, but I enjoyed it immensely.

—I don’t know if he’s going to remain a starter for the entire season, but last night was the perfect example of why Ryan McMahon is going to average more than 20 minutes per game in 2019-20. No one else on Louisville’s roster, Jordan Nwora included, has the ability to flip the momentum of a game entirely over the span of a minute the way McMahon does.

Not that Chris Mack was surprised when it happened last night.

McMahon also had a couple of steals — one in the middle of his personal 9-0 run — and a very solid step-back jumper from about 18 feet, a shot which would really enhance his overall offensive game if he’s able to knock it down consistently. It went without saying after the Bellarmine game that nights where McMahon goes 0-for-5 from three and 0-fer from the field entirely are going to be few and far between this year, but it was nice to see him bounce back so significantly right out of the gate.

—One of the most intriguing things going into last night was to see how Darius Perry would handle his newfound title of starting point guard as he went head-to-head with one of the four or five best guards in the ACC on night one. His early foul trouble spoiled that a bit, but I still thought Darius was up to the task for the most part. He didn’t shoot it particularly well, but he made solid decisions, he controlled the offense, and he was good defensively. It feels like he’s going to be the pilot from start to finish this season.

—Couldn’t be more excited to see this play back for another year of fun.

The only team I remember successfully defending that play a year ago was Clemson. Shoutout to Brad Brownell. Sorry about the loss Tuesday night.

—So I turned on the ACC Network a little bit before 6:20 and from then until whenever the hell they finally flipped over to the basketball game I went through the first three stages of grief, rotating back and forth between two and three for the last five minutes or so.

When I saw that an ACC men’s soccer tournament quarterfinal was airing live on the network this close to the start of an event (basketball tip-off) the network had been hyping since before it’s official launch day, I was a little worried, but I just assumed everything would work out fine. Surely this game will wrap up before 6:30. And then, surely they’ll flip from this to basketball once 6:30 rolls around.

Anger took over the moment I saw live game tweets from media members in Miami starting to appear on my timeline before I could see live basketball on my television. The baby had drifted off to sleep in her swing just in front of the TV about two or three minutes earlier, and I briefly thought that the ACC Network was going to be responsible for the first of what I assume will be multiple sports-related rage awakenings.

I kept it together. Instead of throwing a full glass of water at the television and sending the baby into a shrieking fit, I noticed that the small box in the lower right hand corner of the TV was now saying that the game was airing on ACC Network Extra. Cool. I make the quick couple of button pushes that take me to the appropriate place, and I’m promptly greeted with a message on the official game page telling me that the game has not started yet.

We’re immediately thrown back into chucked glass of water at the TV territory. The news that Darius Perry has picked up two early fouls only increases the likelihood of glass meeting screen. Mercifully, North Carolina or Syracuse or Doss High or whoever finally wins in penalty kicks and we’re able to watch a couple minutes of Louisville struggling before Ryan McMahon buries three treys in a row and we’re floating for the rest of the evening.

Pretty much a seamless start for basketball on the ACC Network.

—I know that Chris Lykes is making a joke(?) here, but there were a few instances during the game Tuesday night where it seemed apparent that Miami’s team chemistry was ... lacking.

There were also a couple of defensive possessions in the second half where the effort from the Canes was painfully minimal. That could fly last year when they were playing with just seven scholarship players, but there’s no excuse for it on night one with the roster Jim Larranaga has this year. That stuff has to get cleaned up if you want to have a shot at finishing in the top half of the conference and flirting with an NCAA tournament bid.

It’s also always so comforting when you see these types of things from other teams to juxtapose that with how engaged our bench is at the other end of the floor. We’re never going to be beaten when it comes to effort and enthusiasm, and as a fan, that is the ultimate luxury.

—Another note on Lykes: I don’t think it would have changed the game much, but the fact that he was still a little hobbled by the knee contusion that limited his minutes in Miami’s exhibition was pretty apparent. He didn’t look nearly as explosive as the guy we’ve seen the last two seasons and deferred a ton on offense to the guys around him, which is even more out of character for him.

The Canes are deeper than they were a year ago, but not deep enough to have any shot against a quality opponent if Lykes is less than 100 percent.

—Chris Mack touched on this after the game, but you could kind of tell that Jordan Nwora was pressing just a smidge early in the second half when the game was out of hand but his stats weren’t sparkling. I think you see a lot of guys who reel in hoards of preseason accolades play this way in the first few weeks of the season. He got hot and he filled it up and he produced the type of stat line (and highlight reel dunk) you expect from an All-American, but the deeper you get into a season the less players think about stuff like that.

It isn’t a selfish thing by any means — Jordan made a terrific pass on a 2-on-1 fast break in the second half — I think it’s just a natural deal when you’ve had so much hype for so many months to want to prove to everyone that you were worthy of every spoken and written word. Nwora is one of the 10 best college basketball players in the country. The full sample size of this season is going to reflect that.

—I don’t know if they forgot them or if it’s going to be a season-long deal or what, but no one on the team wore their warm-ups while they were on the bench last night. Could be a major development for my guy Keith Oddo, who might be flaunting that No. 1 to the crowd all season long.

—Obviously there were no shortage of reasons to be excited about the way Louisville opened its season last night. One of those was that Bill Murray was in attendance. When I first heard that, it made me even more nervous about a season-opening L than I already was because I could already hear the “have we lost every game that Bill Murray has attended” talk. Didn’t want any part of that. Don’t need that noise getting back to Bill. We need Bill attending as many games as possible this season.

I have been alerted to the fact that you can buy the Piggly Wiggly hat he was wearing last night for 15 bucks here.

—Isaiah Wong didn’t shoot it well last night, but I like all three of the freshmen Miami has this season. Harlond Beverly, who blew right by Fresh Kimble a couple of times early in the game, was particularly impressive.

Jim Larranaga is a hell of a coach and the Canes have rebounded on the recruiting trail in a big way (5-star Earl Timberlake committed to them before the game on Tuesday) after being swept into the FBI stuff (and then later swept out of it). The Canes are going to be back as a primary player in the ACC pretty soon.

—The one thing, outside of the occasional appearance of apathy mentioned earlier, keeping Miami from looking like a team with the potential to make a run at the tournament is the lack of anything resembling an inside presence.

Rodney Miller improved during his redshirt season, but he still doesn’t look like a guy who can give you something close to 14 and 10 against a quality team. Sam Waardenburg is 6’10 but he may as well be 6’4. Deng Gak, whether it’s the injuries or something else, hasn’t developed into the type of player he looked like he could become a few years ago.

Basically, the Hurricanes were ripe to be exploited in the paint, and Louisville took full advantage. Steven Enoch probably could have approached a 20-20 game with a different game plan, and Dwayne Sutton absolutely lives for these types of situations. If there’s any sort of issue with the toughness or the physicality of an opposing frontcourt, it’s a guarantee that Sutton is going to get no fewer than six points off of offensive rebounds where he just wants it more than everyone else in the paint.

—The other thing about Enoch is that it was apparent, at least for this game, that he was under strict instructions not to get into foul trouble. He went straight up and stood still when opposing ballhandlers made it all the way to rim, and he didn’t leave the paint for a hard hedge to defend the high pick-and-roll, a move that resulted in a healthy chunk of his foul issues last season.

Aidan Igiehon has all the skills necessary to be a fine college player down the road. It’s pretty obvious after one exhibition and one regular season game that he isn’t capable of being a reliable producer in a big-time game right now. We heard all offseason that it was going to take time. Now we have the visual evidence to back that up.

The good news is that we don’t have an opponent between now and Western Kentucky at the end of the month who should be able to challenge us inside. Having a healthy Malik Williams back by the time the Cards get ready to take on Charles Bassey and company in Nashville would be nice.

—Outside of a couple of shaky minutes early when Darius Perry’s foul trouble pressed him into action sooner than expected, I thought Fresh Kimble played a nice game. It’s clear when he first comes onto the floor that Kimble is still adjusting to life as a “pass-first point guard” for the first time in his life. It’s unnatural for him. The first time he sees the ball go through the net, it’s like his whole body relaxes and the game becomes familiar to him again.

This is the difference in taking a grad transfer point guard in Christen Cunningham who left Samford as the school’s all-time leader in assists and Kimble, who was top offensive option at Saint Joseph’s during the bulk of his time there. In hindsight, it was pretty foolish for us to just assume that these two guys with completely different basketball DNAs could look like the same player.

Fresh is going to be fine, and he’s going to play a large role on this team, it just isn’t going to be the role we all envisioned when his addition was announced back in April.

—Token baby celebration photo:

—As much as I would have loved a final score that accurately reflected the fact that Louisville led by 25-30 points for pretty much all of the second half, there’s a part of me that thinks Chris Mack quietly loves that he gets to keep hammering home the “finish” mantra because of the way the freshmen played in the last four minutes. I’m good with that.

—The best time of the year is back, and this winter feels like it’s going to be particularly special. After last night, I couldn’t be more excited for the journey ahead.