After a wildly successful three game road trip, Louisville appeared to take something of a step back Wednesday night against Georgia Tech in a performance that seemed to disappoint Chris Mack and everyone else associated with Cardinal basketball.
I have a handful of thoughts on the evening that was before we turn the page for good and move on to what could be a tricky game on Saturday afternoon against Clemson.
—When you’re having the same conversation about a team in late January that you had multiple times in November and December, your worry starts to transition from general uneasiness to legitimate fear that this thing may wind up defining the entire season.
The conversation I’m talking about here is the pretty obvious fact that while this is a very good basketball team, it’s not nearly as good as its players seem to think it is. We talked about it after the USC Upstate game, we talked about it after the Miami of Ohio game, we talked about it after the Texas Tech game, we talked about it after the second Miami of Florida game, and we’re going to talk about it now.
First it was the early success, then it was the No. 1 ranking, now it’s the Duke win; Every time this team has the slightest reason to believe that it can just show up and coast against an inferior opponent, it gets smacked back to reality by the realization that it simply cannot. That’s fine if it happens one or two times in mid-November or early December, it’s less understandable when it’s an experienced team running through this cycle for the fourth or fifth time in late January.
When this Louisville team is locked in and giving maximum effort for 40 straight minutes the way it did last Saturday in Durham, there’s no one in the country it can’t beat. When it’s giving, say, 75 percent effort and thinking it can ratchet that number up to 100 if the situation calls for it, U of L can probably lose to half the teams in college basketball. That’s how thin I think the line is.
I loved, loved, loved the way Malik Williams competed on Wednesday against Georgia Tech. His effort level, his defense and his late free-throws might have been what kept Louisville from taking what would have been easily its worst loss of the season.
I hate, hate, hate this quote from Malik Williams after the game.
“It won’t be another team that’ll come out and beat us. It’ll just be us.”
I’m not putting this all on Malik. I think if they’re being honest, probably 80 percent of the players on the team share this same belief right now.
For starters, when you have a thought like this, you run the risk of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your mindset is “when we’ve lost before it’s been because we haven’t been all there mentally, and if we lose again it’s going to be because we’re not all there mentally,” you’re almost definitely going to lose again because you’re not all there mentally. It’s a built-in excuse that serves no purpose other than to exist as a fake safety net.
I’ll be a pro unless I don’t do what I’m supposed to in class and get the grades I need to.
The other thing is that there’s zero evidence out there to back up the assertion that this team’s best beats the best of every other team in the country. Maybe it does, but there are like 20-25 teams out there who could make an equally compelling if not better case as far as this topic is concerned.
In a season as open as wild as this one, the right mentality isn’t “we’re so good that the only ones who can beat us are ourselves,” it’s “we’re on a level playing field with about 20 other teams across the country, and the way we’re going to separate ourselves from that pack is through preparation and effort.”
If that mindset shift doesn’t happen in the coming weeks, this feels like a team that could be sharing “if only we’d” anecdotes when they get back together 20 years from now.
—Don’t take this as me excusing the tightness of Wednesday night’s game, because I’m not, but Georgia Tech has no business being 8-11 with the roster it has. Depth and coaching are concerns, but they have four really good college players to work with. Jose Alvarado is a top five point guard in the conference, Michael Devoe is a very solid first scoring option, and Moses Wright and James Banks are an absolute load to handle in the post.
They racked up some losses when Alvarado missed seven games with an injury, and I do think the mental hurdle of having the postseason ban hanging over their heads (even though the school is appealing) plays a factor in the poor record as well, but this is still a team that should be better than it is. It’s also a team that could play spoiler down the stretch against squads like Virginia Tech, Virginia, Syracuse and NC State that will be needing to avoid “bad” losses to make it into the field of 68.
Lastly, Banks is the only real contributor they have who is a senior, so unless something else wild happens with that program this offseason (always possible), Georgia Tech should be ... should be ... a top half of the ACC team in 2020-21.
—While David Johnson’s ascendance has been understandably loud in recent weeks, Samuell Williamson has quietly taken some significant strides forward as well.
He made a couple of major plays in the Duke game, and then I thought had another really strong performance Wednesday night. He made a tough shot right before the shot clock ran out to bail Louisville out of a bad possession, hit a big three to stop Georgia Tech’s momentum in the first half, and remained a huge asset on the glass both in terms of coming down with boards and keeping possessions alive.
A couple of weeks ago I said I thought that Williamson was going to be resigned to a role where he played 5-10 minutes and anything positive we got out of him was a bonus. I’m going to go ahead and walk that back. Sam is pretty clearly going to have more of an impact on whatever happens over the next two months than it looked like he was going to just two or three games ago. That’s awesome, because at some point — whether it’s as a sophomore or a junior or hell, maybe even this March — he is going to be a tremendous player.
—Speaking of Johnson, the next step in his evolution is pretty clearly going to be on the defensive end. He has all the tools necessary to be a terrific defensive guard, but like so many freshmen, he’s still figuring out how to utilize those tools.
The first thing he needs to realize is that when you already have two or three fouls and the game is close and you’re having a major impact on the offensive end, you can’t just grab guys when they get a step on you off the bounce. The second thing is that even if you have four fouls, you can’t let this happen in the waning moments of a tight game.
Two of David Johnson’s four fouls were him getting beat off the dribble and fouling with the body or reaching. The quicker this part of his game improves, the better. No foul here, but the dunk is because Malik had to help. Even Pastner sees the matchup and says to attack. pic.twitter.com/toHEsopnEO— Justin Renck (@JustinRenck) January 24, 2020
David is pretty obviously giving us way, way more good than bad right now, but like everyone else on the team, there’s major room for improvement in at least one area.
—I think my favorite thing about Chris Mack is that he pretty clearly sees all the same stuff that we see, but unlike so many big-time college coaches, he isn’t afraid to talk about it publicly in the same way that we talk about it with our friends or fellow fans.
At the end of a press conference that was brutally open and honest, Mack was asked about his older players and the need for them to take the next step. I thought his answer was perfect.
They’ve been on really good teams. Some of them were obviously coached by one of the best, if not the best. It’s time and it’s been time that they’ve been around us long enough where they can’t just be on good teams. They got to be the leaders, they have to be the tone-setters for those good teams and not just be in the locker room. That’s a learning process. I have a few guys that want to do it by example. A few guys that are starting to grow horns a little bit and keep a teammate accountable, but we’re not there yet. Moments like tonight better get us closer to there.
Mack talked a few weeks ago about the notion that this team can separate itself from the pack because of its experience. He pointed out that even though you have a lot of seniors and juniors on this team, none of them have played primary roles on great teams. When they’ve been on “great” teams, they’ve either hardly played at all or they’ve been sitting out per transfer rules.
As much experience as there is on this team, no player on Louisville’s roster has experienced making the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Only a couple have played any sort of role in winning an NCAA tournament game. Being a primary contributor to a team ranked this highly this late in the season is new to all these guys, but that adjustment should be over by now.
—Being overly critical of the basketball team’s best player is a Louisville winter tradition every bit as sacred shotgunning milk-soaked bread the moment it starts to flurry outside. Seeing it happen so many times and seeing said player eventually have a terrific February/March and be revered by Louisville fans for the rest of their life has conditioned me to sort of roll my eyes when I see the annual return of said criticism in December and January.
All that being said ... we have to talk about Jordan Nwora a little bit here.
Wednesday night was the most frustrated I’ve been with Jordan all season, and that includes the much-discussed performances against Texas Tech and Kentucky. My frustration lies with the fact that it seemed like Duke was that corner-turning moment for Jordan where he showed the world that even when he was having an off-scoring night he wasn’t going to pout, he wasn’t going to force anything, he was simply going to find other ways to help his team win a very important game.
Wednesday night felt like a step or five back from that. Maybe it was because he gave that type of performance in Durham and still drew some heavy heat from the vocal minority. I don’t know. All I know is the effort level and the defense we saw from No. 33 against Georgia Tech just isn’t going to get it done.
After the Notre Dame game, Dwayne Sutton made it a point to note that it was Nwora who was locking up a red-hot TJ Gibbs on the game’s most important defensive possessions. At the end of Wednesday night’s game, Chris Mack was left with no option other than to sub Nwora out of the game in defensive situations because stuff like this kept happening ...
Combine that with some of the inexplicable shots he chose to take with multiple guys hanging on him as well as the fact that Louisville’s effort level in the second half increased dramatically when he went to the bench for the first time, and you have a clearly disappointing evening for U of L’s ACC POY candidate. The fact that it happened this late in the season and a month after a couple of other “teachable moments” is why this effort disappointed me more than what we saw in New York or Lexington.
Simply put, Jordan is too good and he’s too old for stuff like this to happen in late January. The encouraging thing about his performance against Duke is that he seemed to fully grasp that what’s good for Louisville basketball is good for Jordan Nwora and his professional prospects. That didn’t seem to carry over into Wednesday night.
Jordan is almost a microcosm for this entire team in that every time it seems like we’ve had the same unpleasant conversation for the last time, we have to have it again. Here’s hoping that THIS is the last time because even with the emergence of David Johnson, there’s no way Louisville gets to Atlanta without Jordan Nwora looking at least something like a college basketball star, and there’s noway Jordan Nwora can look at least something like a college star if he isn’t fully locked in, engaged and willing to do the little stuff even if he isn’t having a stellar scoring night.
—As much as I’d love to roast Pastner for a final possession where the ball didn’t move a bit, I actually liked the shot from Michael Devoe. He’s a career 40+ percent three-point shooter stepping into one from straightaway with a limited contest from Fresh Kimble. You take that shot any time you can get it on a possession that important, he just left it about three inches short.
—No, this was actually Michael Scott.
PASTNER: “We are a way better team than what we were. … Unfortunately, it’s a scoreboard game."— Eric Crawford (@ericcrawford) January 23, 2020
—I don’t know if it’s because we’re always making fun of him and it makes him angry, but Pastner seemed to be even more Pastner than usual on Wednesday. He was on the floor fist-pumping while the actual game was being played, he would go nuts after big calls against Louisville, and he even got so animated at one point that he (reportedly) drew the ire of Christi Mack from the stands.
Maybe his mom just let him have a Mountain Dew with lunch as a treat. I don’t know.
—Love the Josh Nickelberry stat line of 1-minute played, 1-foul, no other stats. Very early career Perrin Johnson.
Love you, Perrin.
—I thought the captains really looked like captains in this game. Even though he played only 10 minutes, Ryan McMahon was up and intense the entire game whether he was on the bench or on the court. Malik Williams was an absolute warrior in the game’s most critical moments. And Dwayne was Dwayne Sutton. No need to say more.
—Louisville also got really solid, if not spectacular, performances from both Fresh Kimble and Darius Perry. I feel like we’ve reached a point where we can bank on both an early nailed jumper from Darius and a big late-game basket from Fresh. As long as everything in between is solid, we’re cool.
—Was this a momentary blip after the highest of highs against Duke? Or was it the first sign of another frustrating stretch where the team’s sleepiness finally catches up with it and the team takes its first bad loss of the season?
These guys get to decide and we get to find out starting Saturday afternoon.