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What to make of Louisville basketball’s recent struggles?

Short answer: No one knows.

Georgia Tech v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Louisville Men’s Basketball has provided me and countless other Cardinal fans with a lot of historic ups and downs over the past several decades - a roller coaster ride that Cedar Point would kill to purchase. Personally, I’d like to think that the high moments have certainly outweighed the low ones if the two were ever counted. But make no mistake about it, last Saturday’s 45-point loss at North Carolina (the school’s worst margin of defeat since, gulp, 1939) was one of the lower moments I can remember in real time as a die-hard UofL supporter. The Cards travelled down Tobacco Road and got smoked like a cheap Pall Mall.

Admittedly, my expectations before Saturday’s tip were low. I don’t think it requires a nuclear physicist to prove that a team recovering from COVID-19 related issues will likely take time to find its proper footing again. Louisville looked as sharp as it had all season on Feb 1st when they dismantled Georgia Tech in the Yum Center. Then after an excruciatingly frustrating and concerning 19-day layoff the Cards were historically dull and lethargic in Chapel Hill. So bad that as fan I was wondering why the Cards even made the trip.

So, it begs the ultimate question: Is Louisville Basketball just a temporary pandemic victim or is there more to the recent hardcourt massacre? In other words, is Louisville gonna be ok or are they screwed?

To be fair and balanced, one should consider the following before answering: UNC was unbeaten at home this season. In addition, the Tar Heels biggest strength (it’s front court size & length) benefitted them perfectly with UofL’s biggest perceived weakness being its lack of front court size. They also have a Hall of Fame Head Coach and a roster with lots of talent.

One other thing that I feel is important to note is that the Cards had played some very solid basketball before their first COVID-related stoppage of play earlier in the season as well, only to return (w/out Carlik Jones) by getting shellacked at Wisconsin.

What’s the true story with this Louisville Basketball team? Who the hell are they, really?

There appears to be two primary takes to said questions if you carouse social media, listen to local sports radio or simply talk to other fans.

Take number one is fairly straight forward: The Cards had barely practiced over a three-week period, didn’t have their legs and were suffering from the lingering effects of COVID-19. In other words, we should have seen this coming. Chalk it up as an “it is what it is” game and move forward. The Cards will be fine.

Take number two is different and certainly more troubling: Yes, COVID-19 certainly has hurt this team on a few occasions but losing on the road by 45 points and looking completely uninterested in doing so is unacceptable. Coach Mack either has to recruit better talent or change the way he coaches. Louisville Basketball should never lose a game in this fashion. This is bullshit, everything sucks.

My opinion means about as much as the lent in your dryer’s vent, but I fall squarely in the middle of the two aforementioned takes.

As does most everyone else, I personally know folks who have had COVID. If there is one thing I can definitively say about the virus based on the feedback of those who have been infected, it’s that the virus has a major impact on energy level. In other words, COVID puts you on your arse. I’m the furthest thing from a virologist, but I do know that everyone recovers differently in terms of pace and one’s ability to handle the effects that tend to linger.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I don’t doubt for one second that the COVID layoff was the primary reason that Louisville looked like an NAIA school on the floor with UNC Saturday. Add to the fact that Malik Williams was seeing game action for the first time all season, and the Cards had their backs against the wall from the get-go.

With all that said, I saw things in Saturday night’s game that gave me pause – COVID layoff or not. The Cards looked overmatched in a multitude of ways. The passing was atrocious and although knowing before the game that this was not a “physical” Louisville team, the Cards simply got manhandled on the boards and in the paint. There was a point in the first half where UNC’s most effective offensive play was to get to the free throw line, miss and subsequently grab an offensive rebound (or two) and score. As a Louisville fan, it was beyond frustrating to watch. Equally frustrating was watching the Cards continue to fail to close out on the three-point line giving up one wide open look after another. It’s been an issue since the beginning of this turbulent season.

The Cards’ shooting also continued to suffer in Chapel Hill. For a team that has little to no true offensive presence in the frontcourt, this continues to worry me. In layman terms, if Carlik Jones or David Johnson aren’t having big nights, UofL is easily beatable by most anyone.

I’m moving on from the UNC disaster because it’s the only thing as a fan I can do. But in doing so I’m not gonna lie to myself and pretend that time will heal the majority of this teams’ wounds. Do I think they can be better physically? Well, they better be because frankly, I thought the effort was piss poor for most of Saturday’s game especially down the stretch. Dare I say, but it almost appeared that some guys essentially quit. That can and should never happen, ever.

Do I truly feel like this team is a lock for the Big Dance and poised to make it to the second week of the tournament? I don’t. Beating Notre Dame is a near must Tuesday night. Following the Irish, UofL will play three consecutive games in which they rightfully will not be favored in. Based on what I just watched on Saturday, it’s near impossible for me to look at any of those games as wins. That means that hypothetically the Cards could finish the regular season with a 12-8 record having lost 4 of it’s last 5 games. If that doesn’t put you squarely on the bubble then I don’t know what does. And as a fan it puts me on the pot with cramps worrying if the Cards hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

Clearly, this season has been a wild one. I should probably just be happy that games are even being played. But being that they are, the fanboy in me wants to see UofL prosper when the opportunity is there. What lies ahead for the UofL program is anyone’s best guess after this season. The Cards could be looking at a multiple season post-season ban. Just typing those words makes me nauseous but it’s a real possibility.

I won’t close the book on this team, however. Not yet. Perhaps shouldn’t either if you fall on that side of the fence. The players and coaches have put in the time and the effort to make this season happen. Again, it all goes back to perspective at the end of the day. Carlik Jones can still finish off an amazing individual season. Other young players can continue to grow and show signs of what is to come.

If there is anything that this men’s college basketball season has taught us as fan it’s that nothing is set in stone.

Beat Notre Dame