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Some extended thoughts on Louisville’s win over Navy

TLNGR summary: It was cool.

Syndication: The Courier-Journal Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you listened to any portion of the radio show on Monday, you probably heard me voicing my frustration over the way this team played not just in its loss to Furman last Friday, but in its opening night win over Southern as well. I believe the exact phrase was “this is the least fun I can ever remember watching the first two games of a Louisville basketball season.”

My main problem wasn’t with the poor shooting or the weird rotations or the Chris Mack suspension or even the loss to Furman itself. My problem was that our guys — and let’s just be blunt here — didn’t look like they really gave a shit in either game.

There was no scrambling for loose balls, there was no bench energy, there were very few on-court celebrations or fiery screams or ... anything, really. The bare minimum that we expect from our players did not come close to being met in either contest.

My hope for Monday night’s game was straightforward: All I wanted to see was focus and effort. The guys I wanted Mike Pegues to give the most minutes to were the ones who showed they cared the most.

Both of those boxes were checked.

I’m not saying that all of Louisville’s issues were fixed by Monday’s performance. Not even close. But if this team had responded to being the first U of L team since 1972 to lose a November home game by once again looking like zombies who would have rather spent their three hours in the Yum Center doing anything else, well, it would have been difficult to see the four months ahead going the way we all hope they do.

Now, it feels like we at least have a shot to do something. It’s going to take a ton of consistent, positive change, and a minimal number of regressive occurrences, but at least Monday night was the first major step in that direction.

—This was the moment.

Once this happened, I knew the feeling after game three was going to be significantly better than the feelings after games one and two.

Hopefully, from this point forward, a moment like this won’t need to be celebrated so thoroughly by the fan base because it will be expected.

—If you’re liking what Matt Cross has brought to the table so far (everyone’s hands should be up), then you have Chris Mack to thank.

The story last winter when it became known that Cross was going to transfer from Miami to Louisville was that he was a guy who was handpicked by Mack. A strong majority of his staff believed Cross was a bad fit and urged Mack to back off, but the head coach was willing to accept the blowback if his gut feeling was wrong. It was not.

It’s hard to imagine where this team would be (or how it would look three months from now) without Cross.

—The last two seasons under Ed DeChillis, Navy has been one of the best mid/low-major teams in the country when it comes to valuing possessions and limiting turnovers. They shot over 50 percent in the first half and a respectable 42.9 percent for the game, and it didn’t matter a damn bit because Louisville forced them into a whopping 19 turnovers, off which the Cardinals created 30 points.

This U of L team is not loaded with tremendous on-ball defenders, but it does have a handful of guys who are pretty apt at taking effective swipes at the ball. I know it goes against Mack’s basic defensive principles, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the “gambling Cardinal defense” is here to stay this season. It might lead to more fouls and more easy baskets than we’re used to seeing, but if it leads to totals like 30 points in the other direction, the downside is probably going to be worth it.

—U of L highlights:

—There have been a lot of questions about Malik Williams and his health in the wake of these last three games. I think — and I hope that I’m very wrong about this — that this is simply the Malik we’re going to see this season. All those injuries are going to take a toll on any high-level college basketball player, but they’re going to be especially noticeable when you’re talking about a high level college basketball player who is 6’11.

Maybe his conditioning will improve throughout the course of the season, maybe it won’t. Malik is still effective in a lot of areas — he’s a terrific communicator on defense and he’s nearly averaging double figures in rebounds — but watching him for stretches this season definitely looks like watching the 45-year-old guy at the YMCA playing pickup with the high schoolers.

All that said, I think he’s still our best option at the 5 both long-term and for the time being.

—That last sentence might change in the months ahead if Roosevelt Wheeler develops significantly. He gave us our first glimpse of what he has the potential to be on Monday night, and it was ... pretty impressive.

Even if Wheeler doesn’t evolve to the point where he’s a legitimate challenger for Williams’ starting spot, having him available as a capable backup at the five would be a very, very large blessing for this team.

—Game notes from U of L:

  • Louisville moved to 2-0 all-time against Navy in the first meeting between the two programs since 1972.
  • The Cardinals scored a season-high 77 points in the victory.
  • The 45 points in the first half were the most in any half this season.
  • Four Cardinals finished in double figures in scoring for the first time through three games.
  • UofL had its best shooting night of the young season at 56.0 percent (28-for-50), its best percentage since shooting 60.9 percent (28-for-46) versus Prairie View on Nov. 29, 2020.
  • Louisville finished the night with a season-best 14 steals, the most for the Cardinals since getting 15 against Georgia Tech on Feb. 8, 2018.
  • The Cardinals tallied 18 assists, their highest total since dishing out 19 in the 2020-21 season opener against Evansville on Nov. 25, 2020.
  • UofL forced 19 turnovers and converted them into 30 points. It was the most points off turnovers in a game for the Cardinals since picking up 34 against Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 14, 2019.
  • Louisville’s defense stepped up over the final 20 minutes, holding Navy to just 32.3 percent (10-for-31) shooting in the second half.
  • The Cardinals limited Navy to just 3-of-21 (14.3 percent) from the three-point line on Monday, the lowest three-point shooting night by a Louisville opponent since Western Kentucky show 5.9 percent (1-for-17) on Nov. 29, 2019.
  • Louisville got great production off its bench once again, with 38 points coming from reserves. The Cardinals are averaging 33.0 points per game off the bench through three games this season.

—I hated that the move got him a tech and his third foul and effectively ended his first half, but I also would have been more mad if Matt Cross hadn’t responded to getting shoved by the Navy player.

It was a blatant and unnecessary push, and a dude with the overall mentality of Cross isn’t going to simply take that. He’ll have to be smarter in similar situations down the road, but in that particular case on Monday, I was good with it.

—I’ve been a big fan of Mike Pegues’ press conference these last couple of weeks, but this section of his opening statement Monday especially stood out:

On Sunday, we really got after it. I told those guys we are going to have the best practice of the year. I feel like I kind of sounded like Will Farrell in the movie, ‘we are going to win the mega bowl’ that is what I felt like we were going to have the best practice of the year. I meant that. I didn’t mean perfection. I didn’t mean we were going to make every shot. I didn’t mean we couldn’t turn the ball over. Energy, effort, communication, commitment, investment - what we are about. We saw that yesterday.

I told those guys if you come out here and beat a really good Navy team – l looked around the room and asked – ‘has anybody won at UVA?’ Nope. I haven’t. Malik hasn’t and he’s been here 10 years and he hasn’t won there. So, you beat a good Navy tonight, because we reinvested in the things that matter most in our program. If this team wants to be good, because it can be, that has to be daily thing.

That’s pretty much all I wanted to hear after the walking dead performances last week.

—It’s pretty apparent that JJ Traynor’s stay in the coaching doghouse isn’t coming to an end any time soon, and that Sydney Curry (who appeared to be doing a little too much pouting on the bench) didn’t respond to the post-Furman challenge the way the staff wanted him to. Neither saw the floor on Monday, and in their absence Roosevelt Wheeler may have landed himself a new role as the first big off the bench.

You don’t like your current situation? You’ve got dozens of options, but trying to work your way into a better one is almost always the best route to take.

—Still voicing the intro video.

—Why did the announcers keep bringing up the story of Ed DeChillis getting like 800 texts after the win over Virginia and only three after the 20-point loss to Virginia Tech as if were some great anecdote about loyalty or ... whatever point it is they thought the story was making.

I mean, yeah, that’s how this works. If I have a good friend who I don’t talk to every day, I’m far more likely to text him on the day he lands his dream job or gets his dream promotion than I am after he’s had a slightly below average Tuesday at the office.

“This year on my birthday, I was reached out to by so many friends and family members that it made my heart swell. The day after? Barely a peep from some of those same people. Really makes you think.”

—On Monday night, Louisville played a style of defense that Chris Mack doesn’t prefer. They were physical, overreaching and risk-taking when Navy had the ball. One of the results was a handful of surrendered layups and way too many personal fouls. The more important result was 30 points off of 19 forced turnovers.

With Chris Mack sidelined and having zero communication with anyone, I’m fascinated by how this decision came about. Did Pegues make this call on his own? Was there a secret message transmitted via carrier pigeon? It’s anyone’s guess.

Players can improve, but at the moment, Louisville doesn’t have a plethora of terrific on-ball defenders. I think we’ve all seen that through the first three games. What it does have is a handful of guys with a terrific nose for the ball, guys who know when to gamble and take a stab at taking the ball away from the man in front of them. That was on full display Monday night as the Cards recorded their highest steal total in nearly four years, and the highest of the Mack era to date.

Who knows what happens after Mack returns (or on Saturday, for that matter) but I would be fine with this remaining the long-term defensive mindset of this specific team. If you have guys who are already going to get beat off the bounce if they sit back and let the offense come to them, and other guys who simply aren’t grasping the when to help, when not to help pack line principles, why not let them pressure the ball and jump passing lanes?

It reminds me a lot of the “hey, maybe we should bring more than three pass rushers on 3rd down” discussion from last month. If the thing that you’re scared of happening when you bring more than three pass rushers is already happening when you’re bringing three pass rushers, what do you have to lose here?

In just about every sport, pressure can hide some warts.

—Once we’re deep enough into the season, Mason Faulkner is going to have to be one of the main dudes for this team. He has terrific instincts, he is a tremendous creator, and he’s one of two guys on the roster who I think has the ability to consistently beat quality on-ball defenders off the bounce. I’ve been really impressed with what he’s brought to the table so far.

—Dre Davis has two types of outside misses this year. The first is where the ball defies every law of physics by touching the very bottom of the net and still somehow rattling all the way back out of the rim. The other is where he misses the entire goal by somewhere around 35 feet.

Dre Davis Three-Point Era Watch: On, but teetering.

—He went just 1-for-5 from deep, but I thought Noah Locke’s shot selection was vastly improved in this game from what we saw against Furman. I’m fine with him launching pretty much any time he has a clean look from beyond the arc.

—The defensive rebounding is absolutely an issue. I think the biggest culprit is the attempted fusion of this new offense and Mack’s holdover defense. The pack line (or Mack Line) wants you to use a ton of clock in your halfcourt set, force a contested jump shot, and then dominate the defensive glass. With Louisville now looking to get out and create offensive opportunities in transition, you’re seeing a lot of offensive rebounds off of missed three-pointers from Cardinal opponents because our guards and wings are leaking out too often to try and get a premature start on the break.

You’ve got to check the last box on the defense list before you move on to the first one on the offense list. Hopefully that message is being sent and received this week.

—TLDR summary: Pretty much everything was better Monday night. We’ve still got a long way to go, but this was the first big (albeit delayed) step towards getting there.