Before Tuesday night, we had pretty much only seen this Louisville team win one type of way. The Cardinals got to 7-0 by shooting at an unsustainably high clip against overmatched opponents, and locking in on defense when they had to.
If you’re here reading this post then you’re already well aware of this fact, but Tuesday’s win over Michigan was different.
Playing with a sustained level of intensity that was fantastic to watch, U of L held a team that entered the evening as the second-best shooting squad in America to a woeful 15-of-58 (25.9 percent) from the field. When the final horn sounded, Michigan had been held to its lowest point total (43) and its worst field goal percentage in more than three years. The Wolverines, who had zero issues getting buckets against the likes of Creighton, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Iowa State, averaged just 0.65 points per possession, far and away its lowest total of the season.
Let’s get into the biggest win of the 2019-20 season to date.
—We’ll start out by stating the obvious: This was without question the best the Mack Line (yes we are calling it that) defense has looked in the year and a quarter of its existence here. Very few easy shots around the rim, very few second chance opportunities, no in-rhythm uncontested threes.
Justin did a great job illustrating all of this with his video breakdown, but all of Louisville’s guards did a tremendous job at staying in front of Zavier Simpson and not letting him get downhill, the wings were tremendous at not allowing clean outside looks from the lethal shooting trio of Livers, Brooks and DeJulius, and bigs were tremendous at not allowing Jon Teske to catch the ball too deep in the paint and also not allowing him to slip the high ball screen and get a couple of easy layups.
There wasn’t one player who had a bad defensive game (how often can you say that?), but I have to give a couple of special shoutouts to Ryan McMahon and Steven Enoch, a pair of guys who have been labeled as defensive liabilities, to varying degrees, at times since Mack’s arrival.
McMahon, as plenty of people have already pointed out, was sensational defensively both at dealing with ball screens and applying ball pressure without getting beat off the dribble. I think what we’re seeing with Ryan this year is that his defense has evolved to a point where, as long as the size matchup isn’t an issue — Michigan’s guards are 6’0, 6’0 and 6’1 — there’s no real reason to take him off the floor outside of standard fatigue. Playing the two, there are naturally going to be a handful of games this year where he’s asked to guard someone bigger than he is who can simply shoot over him, but against a backcourt like Michigan’s, McMahon is no longer a guy you have to look to hide defensively.
As for Enoch, much had been made — including by me leading up to the game — about his struggles with over-hedging when defending the high ball screen. That was not an issue a single time on Tuesday night. It was like everything just clicked over night. Malik Williams also did a terrific job defending ball screens and playing Teske one on one in the post, but you expect that from him. For Enoch, this felt like his most complete game as a Cardinal. He gave you the offense like he always has, and defensively, he was near the center of all the terrific things Louisville was able to accomplish.
—A season ago, Chris Mack used anything and everything that could be designated as an item of disrespect to motivate his team. He had shirts made about the fact that the Cards were picked to finish 11th in the ACC, he would print out critical things written about players and tape them inside said player’s locker, and so forth and so on.
With Louisville receiving a significant amount of preseason hype and then climbing to No. 1 less than a month into the season, the question of where Mack would find motivational fuel became an unanswerable one ... and then David DeJulius got in front of a mic on Monday and said that Michigan wanted “all the smoke” the top-ranked team in the country had to offer.
I think it’s safe to assume that everyone associated with Louisville basketball wound up hearing about the comment.
Smoke show...yes sir. Jordan Nwora after U of L beats Michigan 58-43. pic.twitter.com/2cdVebYBFo— Tom Lane (@TomLaneWDRB) December 4, 2019
.@CardsPA on the mic after Louisville's win: "Louisville fans, thank you for joining us tonight -- and bringing all the smoke."— Lucas Aulbach (@LucasAulbach) December 4, 2019
Here’s hoping someone from Pitt is feeling equally chesty before Friday night.
—Out of the 353 teams in Division-I, there are just 16 remaining unbeatens. Louisville is one. DePaul is another.
It was written.
—One of my favorite things about this week has been all the sites (including this one) doing the thing where you write a story about a team’s ranking and use a picture with the jersey number of said ranking as the story art. For Louisville, that ranking of course is No. 1, which means the world has seen a significant amount of Keith Oddo over the last three days.
Here’s your token postgame reminder that Oddo is the best:
—Enoch has struggled a little bit with his face-up jumper and his three-point shot this season, so you figured part of Michigan’s game plan going into the game was going to be to give him space when he was outside of the lane. Doing this would allow the Wolverines to keep Teske — a massive human being — around the rim as a warning to any Cardinal thinking about making a drive to the basket.
Mack, having full faith in his big guy, designed some stuff early on to get him some looks from the top of the key, which has been Enoch’s favorite spot at the Yum Center. When a couple of those dropped, Teske had to leave his home in the lane. When Teske had to leave his home in the lane, Jordan Nwora was able to attack.
Like we talked about in the preview, as good as Michigan is defensively, they really don’t have a guy who can matchup with Nwora. Their wings who are their most capable defenders aren’t big enough to keep him from getting shots off, and their bigger wings aren’t nearly athletic enough to keep Jordan from going right around them. Michigan’s best hope at keeping Nwora from having a 20+ point performance was to press up on him hard to take away the catch and shoot three, and then have their big guy around the rim at all times to keep him from scoring on drives. Steven Enoch wrecked that plan, and Nwora was able to do his thing as a result.
—Dick Vitale giveth to Ryan McMahon and Dick Vitale taketh from Ryan McMahon.
Dickie V jinxed the hell out of Ryan McMahon, then had the most Dickie V reaction of all time pic.twitter.com/Q79AZTqdOh— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) December 4, 2019
—When people talk about Pack Line defenses, they always talk about in terms like “five guys playing as one.” You don’t need five elite defenders for it to be suffocating, you just need five guys who know exactly what they need to be doing at all times, and who can communicate effectively with one another.
Tuesday night was the first time where it looked like this all came together. It felt like you were watching a collective unit on defense and not a bunch of guys all trying to handle their own individual responsibilities.
Case in point ...
There was a play in the first half when Enoch was guarding one of those big guys and the millisecond the guy committed to keeping the ball Steven yelled “Jordan!” and Jordan left his guy to help and stripped the ball....I may have swooned.— Rachel (@snicklefritz35) December 4, 2019
This is the stuff that lets you know that they’ve really got it down.
I think defensive communication was an issue last year, not because these guys sucked at communicating, but because they weren’t confident enough if what they were supposed to be doing to speak up. When you know beyond the shadow of a doubt what you’re supposed to be doing and what your teammate is supposed to be doing, that’s when you start speaking up and speaking out instinctively. That’s a pretty large step for this group.
—Just some completely normal human beings doing completely normal human being fan stuff.
@DrewFranklinKSR @ryanlemond leaving @kfc_yumcenter last night and here Louisville fans talking about a Kentucky fan who did L’s down dressed in Michigan. Guilty as charged #Lsdownforever #BlueGetsIn #GoBlue #BBN #dirtybirds pic.twitter.com/daSYr7NsOC— Cody McHargue (@cmchargue14) December 4, 2019
Sorry, dude. Sold out. pic.twitter.com/Qu66gUgbPB— Mike Rutherford (@CardChronicle) December 3, 2019
Must be a big Michigan guy pic.twitter.com/QNiFzElMa8— Mark Johnson (@MarkMyJohnson) December 4, 2019
Right. In. Front. Of. Me. AND a Louisville fan brought him! pic.twitter.com/cCptDxyb8b— Pay-jah (@PaigeyAeber94) December 4, 2019
Just happy all these individuals got a firsthand look at the No. 1 team in the country beating a top five opponent by 15 points.
—At least some of the reaction after the game was “well, Michigan pretty clearly isn’t the fourth-best team in the country and time is going to bear that out.” Maybe, but I’ll be stunned if the Wolverines aren’t a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament. They already have neutral court wins over tournament locks North Carolina and Gonzaga, and wins over potential tournament teams in Creighton and Iowa State. Even with the loss on Tuesday, that’s as solid an early foundation for a tournament resume as there is in the country right now.
The point is that Tuesday night’s win is going to carry weight three months from now. That’s big for a U of L team whose marquee non-conference game outside of Kentucky was supposed to be next week’s clash with Texas Tech. Suddenly, the Red Raiders have lost three straight games to Creighton, Iowa and DePaul(!).
Michigan stepping up and becoming a quality win on a non-conference schedule that doesn’t have a whole lot of pop is no small thing.
—One of the results of Tuesday night being Louisville’s first real challenge and also its first game on a major national network (sorry, ACCN) was that a large chunk of the country was tuning in to see the No. 1 team in the country play for the first time. That meant a large chunk of the country was seeing the KFC Yum Center’s new floor design for the first time.
The reaction was what you would expect it to be.
Yum! Center still has a dumb name, but, damn, that’s a good looking court. pic.twitter.com/2IW47fRLmW— Brendan Quinn (@BFQuinn) December 3, 2019
Thought about it for 20 minutes. It's true: Louisville's new home floor is now the best design in college basketball.— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) December 4, 2019
Dunking Cardinal Bird forever.
Freedom Hall block letters forever.
—The halftime banner ceremony was perfect. I don’t even really care what the banner itself looks like. I just care that there’s an obvious nod to the 2013 national championship inside the KFC Yum Center and that everyone knows it. Also, both Darrell Griffith and Luke Hancock said all the right things. I’ll just assume Pervis Ellison would have done the same had he been able to make it.
—The references to the 2013 title throughout the arena made me very happy.
—Michigan’s 43 points were the second-fewest scored in a top five matchup played in the shot clock era. Kansas scored 40 points in a 72-40 Champions Classic loss to Lexington Basketball Academy back in 2014.
—I tweeted it early in the second half, but the feel of this game reminded me so much of Louisville’s 2012 Sweet 16 win over Michigan State (suck it, Draymond). In both cases, we knew our opponents were good, we knew we weren’t playing our best offensive game, but it always felt like we were in complete control and that the huge run that sometimes feels inevitable simply wasn’t going to come.
That comparison feels even stronger when you look at the final numbers.
*Both Michigan on Tuesday and Michigan State in 2012 scored 18 first half points.
*Michigan State shot 28.6 percent from the field in 2012. Michigan shot 25.9 percent Tuesday.
*We shot 38.2 percent from the field in 2012 and 36.7 percent on Tuesday.
*We won the rebounding, assists and turnover battle in both games.
*Final score in 2012: 57-44
*Final score Tuesday: 58-43
—The last couple of years, the upper bowl inside the KFC Yum Center has felt like a once thriving town now desolate a few years after the plant that employed half the town got shut down. Tumbleweeds rolling through, dust on the chairs, an old program from a 2012 win over Arkansas State blowing in the wind.
The plant was reopened Tuesday night.
Let’s get this thing going again.
—You’d love to shoot the lights out in every game you play for an entire season, but over 100 years of basketball shows that this isn’t a realistic goal. With that being the case, there was a comfort level to seeing Louisville win a showcase game in this fashion this early in the season.
Chris Mack agrees.
“I told our team repeatedly in the first seven games we haven’t been as good as we need to be. We’re going to have nights where we can’t score for four or five minutes. We didn’t start the game, three or four possessions where he had a good look, you’re playing a very disciplined team that blocks out, you can’t get a second shot and if you can’t defend you aren’t going to allow yourself to stay in the game. I was happy with the way that we won tonight because it wasn’t because Ryan (McMahon) went 7-for-8 from three, and Jordan couldn’t be stopped. We did it because we were resilient on the defensive end whether we were making our shots or missing them.”
—I have seen wayyyyy too many people make comparisons to Virginia in the last 48 hours. Louisville’s tempo numbers are down (294th in pace in the country), but that has more to do with who the Cards have played than anything else. Outside of Akron, U of L hasn’t faced a single team that wants to push the pace with any degree of regularity. The average length of Louisville’s defensive possessions have been 18.5 seconds, which puts them at 331st out of 353 teams. But they actually rank in the top half of the country (159th) in average offensive possession length.
Not pressing and playing a style of defense that isn’t high risk/high regard is always going to result in longer defensive possessions ... if you’re playing it the right way. But make no mistake about it, Mack wants to get out and run a little bit once Louisville gets the ball in its hands, and if there’s an open shot five seconds into a possession, he’s not going to be upset about that shot going up.
Fav pic of the night...Coach looking back at his family. pic.twitter.com/2Rss8n5peu— Sally Whitchurch (@SWhitchurch) December 4, 2019
—I actually thought Fresh Kimble played a solid game for the most part, but his mistakes (turnovers, missed layups) were so glaring that it was hard to fully appreciate his defense and his effectiveness running the offense. He was like a cornerback who is rock solid for 95 percent of the game but gets burned badly on two deep passing plays.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Fresh not using the correct hand on his layups is going to send me to an early grave. I wouldn’t mind it if he were finishing at the rim consistently, but he isn’t.
I notice all the time that Kimble uses the wrong hand on layups and I hate @CardChronicle for it.— Keith Wynne (@Keith_Wynne) December 4, 2019
This isn’t just the year I became a dad, it’s the year I became my dad.
—Here’s my 196th favorite thing about Dwayne Sutton: His scoring numbers indicate that he’s earned the right to force some things from time to time offensively, but he never does it. So many guys in college basketball do the thing where if they haven’t shot in six or seven possessions, they feel like they’ve earned the right to hoist one, regardless of the situation. Dwayne never does that.
Sutton attempted only three shots on Tuesday because he only needed to attempt three shots on Tuesday. He’s incredibly aggressive in all of the areas of the game that demand incredible aggression (rebounding, defense), but when it comes to the offense, he always lets things come to him.
More of Louisville's length/athleticism... Here's Simpson with his patented pass to the cutter in chin (like in this pregame video: https://t.co/s6qcvM1coW), but Livers is blocked at the rim: pic.twitter.com/7ba6uSsdqZ— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) December 4, 2019
The guy rules.
—Mrs. CC during the game: “Has Vitale always been this annoying? Like, I’m not sure I can listen to this. You may have to mute the TV.”
The stress of early motherhood exacerbates everything.
—Everything about Tuesday (outside of the shooting) was the best.
Really impressed with Cardnation tonight!! pic.twitter.com/5S5n43sSb2— PerfectlyImperfect (@MattiB84) December 4, 2019
—There are dozens of contenders to be the primary takeaway from this game, but here’s my pick: The fact that Louisville, against a quality opponent, was in complete control of a game and never appeared to be in danger of losing that control. It’s been very well documented that this didn’t happen a year ago, and mini-versions of those late game issues appeared multiple times against overmatched opponents last month.
Louisville asserted its will over Michigan early on, it maintained control in the heart of the game, and then when the time came to bury the Wolverines, the Cards buried the Wolverines. That is a big confidence boost to get less than a full month into the season.