I feel asleep Wednesday night feeling strangely ok about a game where Louisville trailed Wake Forest at home by 15 points and needed to shoot 14-of-28 from three to pull away and win. I woke up still feeling ok about it.
Don’t get me wrong, the defensive effort level in the first half was pretty clearly substandard, a fact which was made even more apparent when compared with the focus and the intensity we saw throughout the second half. The “we can turn it on when we need to” mentality has been on full display with this team a few other times this season, but I think the last four weeks have given us enough evidence to believe that a subpar 20 minutes — which we probably wouldn’t have even noticed had Wake not played its best offensive half of the season — isn’t symptomatic of some larger issue that is ultimately going to doom this squad.
Also, let’s not just completely gloss over the fact that this team did turn it on when it needed to, and not just like halfway up the dimmer switch on, but all out, blinding light from Close Encounters on. A lot of good teams in recent weeks have had nights where they just aren’t all the way there, and even when they’ve tried to find that next level they haven’t been able to. Being able to flip the switch when you need to is an asset that can burn you if you lean too heavily on it, but it’s an asset none the less.
If you’re more concerned about Wednesday night’s game than I am, that’s a completely rational position to take and I totally understand it. You could be right and I could be wrong, and two weeks from now we could all be looking back at the first half of last night’s game as a red flag that should have been taken more seriously. Here’s hoping that doesn’t wind up being the case.
—Only five teams in the history of Louisville basketball have started a season better than this year’s squad has.
Louisville's best record through 23 games:— Kelly Dickey (@RealCardGame) February 6, 2020
21-2 -- 1956, 1967, 1972, 1975, 1980
20-3 -- 1979, 1983, 1994, 2005, 2020
Louisville's best conference record through 12 games:
12-0 -- 1980, 1983
11-1 -- 1967, 1972, 1974, 1981, 1993, 2020
Being 20-3 on Feb. 6 with legitimate dreams of playing into April is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
—Dan Dakich (hey, Dan) starting the game talking about Louisville as potentially the best team in the country and an undeniably “great” team 100 percent caused the Cardinals’ first half performance and you can’t convince me otherwise.
—Here’s the thing that I hate about last night’s announcer pairing: Jason Benetti is actually tremendous and one of my favorites, and not just because he called out Dakich for the Jeff Brohm “report” last year or because he started last night’s broadcast with “happy to be joined by Dan Dakich, something I’m paid to say.” He’s just really good at what he does, something which gets completely overshadowed by his partner’s antics on every single broadcast.
Benetti and Dakich are back on the call for Louisville-Virginia on Saturday.
—Via Susan Sweeney Crum, here’s Coach Crum showing Coach Mack the “don’t let their big man get away with walking and fouling out without getting called for it” game plan to beating Wake Forest:
In all seriousness, what a great picture.
—It was nice to see that attendance for a 9 p.m. Wednesday night game against the last-place team in the ACC drew more fans than most of the January ACC games against similar competition. I also thought the crowd was especially involved and extremely beneficial in the second half.
I’ll also echo the point Nick Coffey made on Twitter last night: After decades of (deserved) criticism, Louisville’s student section has been fantastic all season long. Last night was no different. Shoutout to The Villens.
—I think this may have been the loudest the KFC Yum Center has gotten so far in the Chris Mack era.
Awesome moment at the end of an awesome run. I was one billion percent certain that shot was going in from the moment Fresh started to throw the pass ahead to Ryan.
—If you have the time and/or the desire, go back and watch any stretch of the second half and focus just on Dwayne Sutton. The guy was in an MMA fight on virtually every halfcourt possession and he was not going to lose. That’s as earned a double-double (15 points, 11 boards) as you’re ever going to see.
Dwayne Sutton started the second half and played 9 minutes before he was subbed out.— Gabe Duverge (@GabeDuverge) February 6, 2020
His stat line in that period alone: 11 pts, 6 rebounds, 1 steal
Dwayne also tied with Fresh for the team lead in assists with four.
I’m not ready to start thinking about his senior night.
—Speaking of Fresh, that may have been his most complete performance of the season. Against a team that loves to make things as sloppy as possible, Kimble was the rock solid, steadying presence Louisville had to have. Going 3-of-7 from the stripe isn’t ideal, but drilling 3-of-5 from beyond the arc goes a long way towards making up for that.
The cool thing with Fresh in recent weeks is that he has seemed to recognize that pretty much every time he misses, he misses short. His body is more into his shot now than it was back in December, which gives his shot those extra few inches necessary to go from front rim to bottom of the new.
Also, Last Segment Fresh remains a very real and very spectacular thing.
—First Segment Darius finally let us down last night, misfiring on both of his jump shots in the opening four minutes. That dropped FSD’s season-long field goal percentage from 100 percent to 98.7 percent. Do not check those numbers, they’re right.
—The most frustrating thing about last night’s broadcast wasn’t Dakich, it was the constant unnecessary use of split screen during live action.
There was one stretch where on three possessions we had a split screen of Chris Mack and live game action, a split screen of Randolph Childress and live game action (which actually caused us to miss seeing a Wake Forest free-throw), and then a split screen of the f—-ing announcers talking next to live game action.
Who wants this? Are viewers actually hitting up ESPN and giving them feedback that leads them to believe this heightens the viewing experience? Because I find that hard to believe.
I loved Randolph Childress as a player. I don’t need to see Randolph Childress as a player’s dad sitting and staring blankly on half my screen as Louisville runs through its halfcourt set on the other side. And I really don’t need to see the two announcers staring at the camera and saying the same things they would be saying if they weren’t being pictured while an important defensive possession is happening on the other side of the TV.
More is usually less when it comes to live game broadcasting. Graphics are fine, and I can put up with bad commentating, but the one thing that should never be disturbed is having a full screen showing the actual game while the actual game is being played. That’s why we’re all here.
—Master P attended last night’s game with his son, class of 2022 recruit Hercy Miller.
Master P in the building, next section over. pic.twitter.com/lyRyL65SpA— LJ tha Fiasco (@LJthaFiasc0) February 6, 2020
They both reportedly left while Louisville was still trailing by double figures, making it pretty clear that Master P is only allowed to attend Cardinal road games. Hopefully this won’t hurt our chances with his son.
—David Johnson was bound to have a night where he didn’t just have “a couple of freshman moments” but one where he “looked like a freshman” the whole time. Thankfully, it came on an evening where Fresh Kimble and Ryan McMahon were both terrific and Louisville was still able to win by double-digits.
At the risk of having this sentence blown totally out of proportion, watching freshman David Johnson reminds me a little bit of watching freshman Lamar Jackson back in 2015. I’m not saying that DJ is going to win the Naismith Award next year and be the NBA’s MVP later this decade, I’m just saying you’re simultaneously seeing these flashes of brilliance and “freshman moments” from an incredibly gifted kid who pretty clearly is still figuring out the best way to utilize his skill-set through in-game trial and error. The good is almost always going to outweigh the bad, but there are going to be nights like Wednesday where that isn’t the case.
Again, Wake Forest wants to muddy up the game — lots of turnovers, lots of fouls, lots of free-throws. That’s a dangerous recipe for an excitable freshman point guard who likes to push the envelope, and one which led to him turning the ball over on 58 percent of the possessions where the ball touched his hands Wednesday night.
In a weird way, Wake Forest at home is a more dangerous setup for David Johnson than, well, Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The results seem to bear that out.
DJ is fine and he’s going to continue to be a major player in whatever good occurs over the next two months. Wednesday night was just a trap for him that he walked directly into.
—This was the moment both of the Wake Forest fans who hadn’t already given up hope knew that their team’s upset bid was kaput.
One of my favorite plays of the year so far pic.twitter.com/ueqMDsn5cV— Peter Hepner (@PHep32) February 6, 2020
—Just so we’re all clear, if you’re sitting motionless on the ground and a guy with the ball doesn’t see you and falls over you, that isn’t an “incidental contact” foul, it’s nothing. If the play results in the offensive player walking or turning the ball over, then so be it. It’s a bad break, but a motionless player cannot commit a foul.
—See you on the other side, Danny Manning. Excited to square off against the Shaka Smart-led Demon Deacons a year from now.
—I’m going to sound like a broken record at this point, but Malik Williams’ knee doesn’t look anywhere near 100 percent. There was an extended shot right before halftime where, directly in front of the camera, he bent over and rubbed his knee several times and then started limping back to the locker room.
I know Malik’s a warrior who is going to want to play through the pain and will be able to so and still be effective, but it’s hard to see that knee getting any better if he doesn’t any sort of rest for the next eight weeks. I’ll gladly take a slightly diminished chance of winning two or three regular season ACC games if it means we have him as close to 100 percent as possible for March. It’s not normal for that guy to play 23 minutes in a physical game like that and only walk away with one rebound.
More than anything else, this is what people texted and tweeted me about last night, so I don’t think I’m the only one seeing it. Mack was also asked about it after the game. Here’s what he had to say:
“If he’s playing less than 100%, he hasn’t told me that. Everybody’s going have bumps and bruises throughout their season. And, you know, Malik’s never a guy that makes excuses, so maybe he’s sore. I don’t know.”
Having one of the best defensive big men in the country is a major asset to have in a single elimination tournament, especially when said big man is athletic enough to guard multiple positions. That second part of the equation is only possible if Malik’s knee is healthy enough for him to move laterally on it at a rate that’s somewhere near 100 percent. Whether it’s through additional rest or just the natural progression of things, here’s hoping we’re at that point a month from now.
—On a more positive note, Malik’s threes always feel like the nicest little bonus. I should have more, but I only have about a 10 percent confidence level when he takes one that isn’t in perfect rhythm, which makes it feel even better when the ball rips through the net (or bounces around the rim five times before casually walking through).
After a 4-for-21 start to the year from beyond the arc, Malik has now canned three of his last four treys, including a 2-for-3 effort Wednesday night.
—They should wear these every game.
—I can’t imagine how tired big men get of hearing people tell them “just dunk it,” as if there isn’t an equally large human being — or, as was the case last night, even larger human being — standing between them and the basket. Maybe that was the reason Steven Enoch’s turn and cram when he get perfect position on Olivier Sarr felt like such a cathartic moment for him.
—”First half turnovers” have become the new “first segment after halftime.” If you can take care of the ball as well as Louisville did in the second halves against both NC State and Wake Forest, there’s really not much excuse for valuing the possession as little as the Cards did in the first half of both of those games. That’s doubly true when you take into account the fact that both opponents only utilized extended pressure after halftime.
—Happy Bench Darius still being a thing on nights where he isn’t playing his best is a positive development.
When you're playing chase in the house and your mom comes home early from work pic.twitter.com/Pil7JShmR6— Rachel (@snicklefritz35) February 6, 2020
—The first full month of Louisville’s conference season perfectly exemplifies how completely a team’s defining narrative can shift in a relatively short period of time.
Jan. 6, after the Florida State game — “Jordan Nwora is a star, but he just does not have any help. There’s no one else on this team who can create their own shot and just go get a bucket when the Cards need one. Louisville can’t rely on Nwora getting 30 every time they play a quality opponent if they want to start winning these big games.”
Feb. 6, after Louisville has ripped off nine straight wins — “What separates Louisville from the other good teams in college basketball is their depth. Look at their most recent game, where six different guys scored in double figures. Jordan Nwora is a great player, but Chris Mack doesn’t need him to score 25 or 30 to beat good teams. There are nine quality players on this team.”
In-season evolution is a beautiful thing.
—The best part about Wednesday night’s game? The hottest shooting team in the country went 14-for-28 from three a few days before Virginia comes to town.
Obviously, we’ll be talking much more about that in the 48 hours to come.