As recently as four weeks ago, I had significant concerns about this team. Not its ability or its coaching or anything like that, but its general ability to come together and collectively “get it” the way a true national title contender has to.
Whether it was because they were playing poorly or not playing enough, too often it seemed like guys simply weren’t having fun playing basketball for Louisville. And the guys who were playing big minutes and occasionally playing very well? Their level of focus and intensity dipped at times when it had no business dipping.
With the exception of some stretches during the Georgia Tech game, the last three weeks have erased all these fears. I’m not saying that U of L is suddenly the undisputed best team in the country or that they’re absolutely going to end their season in Atlanta, I’m just saying that if March doesn’t go the way we all hope it goes, it’s not going to be because of chemistry issues or lack of focus or a substandard effort level, which is a nice peace of mind to have as you flip the calendar to February.
Everyone seems focused, everyone is contributing in their own way, everyone seems all-in on achieving the same goals, and everyone appears to be happy to be a Louisville Cardinal. Mentally, that’s exactly where you want to be at this point in the season.
The actual execution hasn’t been all that bad in recent weeks either.
—First Segment Darius Perry drilled his first two jumpers and remains the greatest college basketball player in the country. All we can do is appreciate him.
Darius Perry in segments 2-10 was pretty damn good once again as well.
—One of the best things about the last couple of weeks is that the Louisville players now have the full knowledge that they can play well and win a game when Jordan Nwora goes off for 37 points, and they can play well and win a game when Jordan Nwora scores 10 points. If he’s setting the world on fire and continuing to get space like he was Wednesday night, keep getting him the ball. If the opposing team is going to spend so much effort taking him away that it creates big opportunities for everyone else (Duke game), cool, those other guys are going to step up and shoulder the load without issue.
I think there was a sense in November and December that Jordan didn’t need to play like an All-American every night for Louisville to be its best self, but he needed to score at least 20 points or so for the Cards to beat good teams. That sense is gone, something Jordan himself acknowledged after the game on Wednesday.
“I can score 20 points every game if I really want to,” Nwora said. “It’s not really about that. This year, it’s about winning games. I don’t want to score 20 in a way that’s going to hurt the team.”
In-season evolution is such a beautiful thing.
—Jordan Nwora leads the nation in catching his own dunks before the ball hits the floor and no one is going to convince me otherwise.
We track everything else in basketball these days, so why can’t we track this? Get off your ass, Ken Pom.
—By the way, that GIF comes from this fantastic video, where the Nwora dunk/catch is shown immediately after a shot of the CCBM all the way up in Chestnut Hill.
It’s the little things.
—Speaking of Jordan, he and Chris Mack both acknowledged after the game that he was very aware of the fact that he had 37 points in the contest’s final minutes. He attempted two awful shots to try and get to 40 and neither came particularly close to finding the net.
If one of those had gone in, not only would Jordan have finished with a nice round number, but he would have set a new record for the most points by a visiting player inside the Conte Forum. Former UConn star Rip Hamilton dropped 39 on Boston College at Conte on two separate occasions during his college career.
The 37 points were also the most by a Louisville player since Russ Smith dropped 42 on Houston in the 2014 AAC tournament semifinals, and the most by a Cardinal in a true road game since Butch Beard scored 41 against Bradley on Jan. 14, 1967. Nwora’s seven three-pointers also tied the record for the most ever by a U of L player on the road.
For those wondering, the all-time record for the most points by a Louisville player is 45 by Wes Unseld against Georgetown College on Dec. 1, 1967.
—This is the second straight season that Louisville has lost its first game of January, and the won the rest of the games in the month. I feel pretty optimistic that February 2020 will mirror February 2019 significantly less.
—Unless BC gets hot and wins a couple of games in the NCAA tournament, I’d bet good money that this is the last time we see Jim Christian coach the Eagles against the Cards. I’ll choose to remember the good times ... which are every game besides last year’s loss in Chestnut Hill.
—Speaking of Christian, he joined the chorus of ACC coaches who have been extremely complimentary of the Cards after defeats this season. Unlike some, I think he was 1— percent genuine and I enjoyed his quote.
“I don’t know if anybody’s better than this team. This team is really good at a lot of different things. The thing about this team that makes them special is that they’ve got like nine starters out there.”
Having nine starters is cool.
—Baldwin the Eagle high as hell watching his team get thumped is my favorite mascot moment of the season so far.
—One thing about this year’s team that has received surprisingly little attention given how much attention it got a year ago, is how well these Cardinals have handled full court pressure. Boston College was the most recent team to try and bust out a full-court press and rattle Louisville, and the U of L players on the floor seemed to not bat an eye every time it happened.
On paper, Louisville shouldn’t be that much better equipped to handle full-court pressure than they were a year ago, and yet here we are. Credit to guys like Darius Perry, Ryan McMahon and Dwayne Sutton for improving their awareness in these situations, and also to Chris Mack and the staff. You can tell that handling this type of pressure is something they drilled this team on over and over during the preseason. The results speak for themselves.
—Another tip of the cap to the staff and players for the zone look they threw at BC when the game was still in question in the second half. The Eagles seemed like they had zero idea how attack it, and the 2-3 completely threw them out of rhythm.
The main issue that Louisville has had on the few occasions where it’s busted out the zone has been rebounding. When you’re so used to rebounding out of a certain system — this guy crashes from the top, this guy falls back, this guy rotates for the weakside rebound — it’s going to take some time to do it as effectively out of a different look. The only way to improve on that is to keep playing it in actual game situations. My guess is that Mack will, especially when he has David Johnson’s length and athleticism to put out there at the top.
Being a lengthy scout is one of the biggest advantages a team can have in March. Every effective wrinkle you can toss into your arsenal helps, which is why I love that we’re spending at least a small amount of time mixing in something a little different on defense.
Once again, Mack not being too stubborn to change things up and dip a toe into some foreign waters is one of my favorite things about him and I think one of the most encouraging things about him as longterm coach.
—It felt like Louisville turned the ball over a ton Wednesday night, but their 13 giveaways were actually three fewer than Boston College’s season average of 16 takeaways per game. It’s the one area where the Eagles really excel, and U of L did a great job of adjusting and taking much better care of the ball down the stretch. Ten of those 13 turnovers came in the first half.
—If we finish this season undefeated on the ACC Network, I’m buying one of those skillets.
—Malik Williams is a warrior and his 13 rebounds were huge, but it still looks like he’s having a little bit of trouble with that knee. There were a couple of halfcourt situations where it looked pretty clear that he wasn’t moving quite as well as he typically does. Hopefully that isn’t something that continues to bother him down the stretch because having one of the better defensive big men in the country is a fairly large asset to have.
—Speaking of big men, there’s going to be at least one (probably more) game in the second half of this ACC season where Louisville’s torrid outside shooting cools off a bit. When that happens, we’re going to need Steven Enoch to be the dominant inside force that we’ve seen him be on occasion over the last couple of years. He hasn’t been quite as locked in offensively in recent weeks, which has flown under the radar because of how well everyone else has been shooting, but it certainly feels like there’s at least one more “we need Steve to get 20 for us to win” games remaining on the schedule.
—I have complete confidence in all nine of our rotation guys right now and in any lineup combination that we utilize with those guys. Not all nine are going to play well every night (Fresh was off on Wednesday ... I’m blaming the undershirt), but when you have that level of depth, there’s always going to be someone there to pick up the slack.
Again, this is a nice place to be heading into February.
—Also a nice place to be? Alone in first place in the ACC, with the best 10-game record since joining the conference, and riding the longest league winning streak since joining the conference.
These are the good times.