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Extended thoughts on Louisville’s win over Virginia Tech

Chris Mack knows.

Virginia Tech v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Even with the shortened non-conference season, even with the 6:30 tip on ACC Network, and even with Virginia Tech as the opponent, last night’s game still had that first big conference showdown after the new year feel.

The best winter nights in January and February are the ones where the winning feeling lingers for hours. If you’re reading this, you know the nights I’m talking about.

The final horn sounds, you clap, you yell, you reach down into the deepest pit of your vocabulary and grab your favorite combination of celebratory expletives. But that moment is just the beginning.

The succeeding hours are spent texting with like-minded friend and/or family about what just went down. They’re spent scouring social media for a new team celebration video, highlight clip or spicy postgame quote. These are the nights that carry us through a pair of otherwise unendurable months that offer little else outside of cold and darkness and teddy bears holding candy hearts.

Hopefully last night was the first of several, but it felt good to have that “best part of winter in Louisville” feeling back.

—Slow starts continue to be a thing with this team. Even though they nearly clawed their way completely out of the 11-0 hole they dug for themselves, Louisville trailed Virginia Tech by a bucket at the first TV timeout.

The Cards have won the opening segment just twice this season (Pitt and Kentucky), and are now -27 in opening segments for the season.

—On a more positive note, this was the second straight game where Louisville actually came out of the locker room hot to start the second half. Bizarrely, the first segment after halftime was the only second half segment the Cards wound up winning.

There was just one lead change total in this game between two quality teams that came down to the final shot. A second would have been tough to stomach.

—ESPN using its run graphic to highlight an 8-0 “run” to start the game was sort of like opening your garage door with your smart phone or Alexa: Yeah, I guess it’s kind of cool that you can do it, but there’s really no point.

Thankfully, we ended the game on a 73-71 run.

Also, the ref was not squished.

—Carlik Jones and David Johnson are the best backcourt in the ACC right now, and my guess is that will still be the case at the end of the season. No pair of guards in the league are producing more on a nightly basis than these two are.

I don’t have anything else to add.

—The best thing about having Carlik on this team is that he’s such a stabilizing force at times that have the potential to become chaotic. He rarely makes the wrong decision, and even when he does, a lot of times he can get away with it because he’s so skilled.

Many people were upset with the iso play call (even though the play call wasn’t that simple) for Jones on Louisville’s final true possession of the game. That’s easy to do since it resulted in a turnover that kept the door open for VT, but I had zero issue with it, and I’d put the ball in his hands in that situation the very next time I found myself there. Sometimes really good defenders make really good plays, and Wabissa Bede is a really good defender who made a really good play.

—This was a very cool thing to see before the game:

And an even cooler thing to see after the game:

Brayden Mack rules.

—There are very few non-life threatening/ruining moments that are more agonizing than the second or two when a potential game-winning shot that would steal a small part of your soul is in the air. I felt at least a finger or two of my soul starting to claw its way out of my body as Hunter Cattoor’s shot remorselessly surged towards the visiting basket.

What would have made that loss so difficult to stomach is that Louisville had so clearly been the better team from the 2-minute mark of the first half on, and had also felt so tantalizingly close to putting the game away for what felt like most of the second half. A couple of missed free-throws, a couple of loose balls off fingertips, Jalen Cone hitting shots where he was facing away from the basket when he began his jump, the Dre Davis loose ball foul; All of that stuff combined together would have made a last-second loss Wednesday night an absolute week-ruiner.

—While the Cards once again struggled with putting a competitive game out of reach in the final minutes, I don’t think you can point to their defensive intensity falling off as one of the reasons why the door was left open.

For example, the effort level on this defensive possession is about as high as you’re going to see anywhere. The execution isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to result in a Jalen Cone 26-footer that you’re going to live with regardless of how hot his hand is.

Overall, I thought the effort level on the court and the enthusiasm both on and off it were as high as they’ve been this season. That’s exactly where you want to be heading into the heart of the conference season.

There was one notable exception ...

—When Mack was asked after the game what Samuell Williamson needs to do in order to get going, his answer was immediate and brutally matter of fact.

“I think he has to play harder,” Mack said. “You know, I think that if we’re all running the floor and he’s not, he sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s been practicing a little bit better. But, you know, he does have to get going. He’s way better player than he’s playing. If he allows it to get mental, that’ll be an issue but, you know, the good thing is he’s keeping a good attitude. Usually good things happen for guys that have the right attitude. He needs to play harder on both ends of the floor, and with more intensity, and when he does that I think he’ll be a lot more successful at this level.”

Good things happen to players — whether their skill level is great, average or below average — who give maximum effort in instances where they could easily get away with going half speed. Take, for example, the guy who took nearly all of Williamson’s minutes in the second half: Quinn Slazinski.

Four of Slazinski’s 10 points came at crucial moments and off of pure hustle plays. One bucket came when he sprinted to the glass to clean up a David Johnson miss, and another came when he sprinted the floor after a Carlik Jones steal, and was rewarded after Jones bobbled the possession but was able to tap the ball over to his hustling teammate. If Slazinski is going even 75 percent there, maybe he retains possession or maybe Jones does, but Louisville certainly doesn’t get the easy two points they wound up with.

Those are four points in a two-point win that were earned simply by not gearing down at times when nobody would have noticed that you geared down. Those are winning plays.

We’ve got to get Sam to start making some winning plays. All the other stuff will follow after that.

—Wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t acknowledge that Josh Nickelberry killed a man and watched the life leave his body on Wednesday night.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow for Jalen Cone, who dropped a career-high 23 points and almost single-handedly kept the Hokies in the game, but made SportsCenter’s top 10 for all the wrong reasons on the same night.

—The Cards are now 6-0 this year and 24-0 over the last two seasons when hitting the 71-point mark.

—I sound like a broken record at this point, but Jae’Lyn Withers has a chance to be a special, special college player. That potential has never been on more complete display than it was last night.

Of course he then morphed into big man Russ Smith for a stretch in the second half where he made amazing plays that both helped Louisville hold its lead and helped Virginia Tech stay within striking distance. There’s time to correct all that. A nice first step would be taking the step-back, 18-foot jumper five seconds into a possession with your team holding a solid but not insurmountable lead, removing it from your repertoire, and chucking it into the Ohio River.

Still, a fantastic performance from Withers overall. He was terrific on the defensive end against Keve Aluma, who came into the game as the hottest post player in the conference. The only glaring defensive mistake Jae’Lyn made was (once again) gambling on an entry pass when he was in solid position to defend Aluma straight up. He was punished justly by being dunked on.

—Chris Mack knows.

Chris Mack always knows.

—I love the guy, but this needs to be said: I’m not sure JJ Traynor has earned the right to rock the one high sock look just yet. Two more game-winners and some solid overall play before March, and this take will be reevaluated.

—Speaking of reevaluation, I have no idea what to do with the Dre Davis Three-Point Era Watch.

We had an airball long by five feet, an airball short by five feet, and then a zero hesitation pull that ripped through the net without grazing any iron. He’s like Fulton Reed, except it’s one out of every three instead of one out of every five.

The official stance of Card Chronicle at this time is that the Dre Davis Three-Point Era is still back on, but it’s in a provisional state right now. Sort of like the old Facebook “it’s complicated” relationship status on Facebook.

As always, keep it locked here for further developments on this pressing matter.

—So close to 72-70.

Listen to the Card Chronicle Podcast for mostly wildly inaccurate, but occasionally eerily close score predictions.

—David Johnson is now 9 of his last 14 from three, and 14 of his last 26.

That’ll do.

—Mike Young is a really good coach who’s eventually going to get Virginia Tech back to where it was at the end of the Buzz Williams era (lottttttta underclassmen on this year’s team who will be back). Maybe by that point more than 3 percent of us will be able to pick him out of a lineup.

—Loving this group, loving this start to 2021, and loving where this season has the potential to go. Hating that we don’t get to see them play for another week now.

Go Cards.