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Five day after thoughts on Louisville’s loss to Duke

The sting is still there.

ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Let’s jump right in.

1. Losing to Virginia and not getting to play Virginia Tech in the final week of the regular season left Louisville in the worst spot imaginable in Greensboro — a 7-seed tasked with handling a desperate Duke team (playing in an arena where they are always king) in the second round, and then a Florida State team that has dominated the program over the last few years in the quarterfinals. If you listened to either podcast from the beginning of the week, you know that I wasn’t particularly confident about Wednesday night, but the manner in which the evening played out was ... deflating is the best word I can think of.

With everything in the world to play for, Louisville came out completely flat. It lazily closed out on shooters, it floated passes that needed to be fired, and it got outworked for loose balls and rebounds. Predictably, it soon found itself in a 14-point hole that felt like it should have been even larger.

The 16-0 run that was seemingly conjured out of thin air over the course of 150 seconds is one of the more bizarre things I’ve ever witnessed from a Louisville basketball team.

In the snap of a finger, the Cards went from a team that couldn’t make a layup or complete a simple pass, to one drilling three-pointers and successfully firing length of the court baseball passes to Josh Nickelberry (who I actually thought played with terrific effort whenever he was on the floor). Five minutes into halftime, I was still too dazed and confused to fully process what I’d just witnessed. But I was excited.

Then, perhaps even more confusing than the run itself, Louisville began the second half with the same zombie alter-ego that possessed it for the game’s initial 15 minutes. U of L’s listlessness allowed Duke to net the first nine points of the half, and even though the Cards woke up and toughened up a bit after that initial blow, the game never really felt like it was within reach again.

The whole thing was just baffling to observe. You can’t control everything in a basketball game, but you can always control your effort level and your focus. This team’s effort level and focus fluctuating so significantly in a postseason game that meant so, so much to its NCAA tournament outlook just doesn’t make any sense.

Chris Mack said after the game that he and the staff spent pretty much the entire halftime session preaching about how the team had to start the second half with the same energy level that it ended the first with. That didn’t come close to happening, and it was far from the first time this season where that’s been the case. I don’t know what to do with that. It’s a problem you can hope to have fixed when it rears its head in November or December. Not so much when it’s happening in a team’s first postseason game.

2. To his credit, Carlik Jones was open and honest with his answers during the postgame press conference.

Here’s how Jones explained Wednesday night’s game going so differently than rounds one and two versus Duke:

I think the first two times we wanted it more. I think we came ready to play, and I think today, kind of like what our coach said in the locker room, (Duke) treated this game like a championship and they competed for all 40. They came into the game locked in, and we kind of played the game today in spurts. When you play like that against a good team, it doesn’t always work out for you.

And on why the team didn’t start the second half with the same level of energy it ended the first:

Honestly, I don’t know. That’s kind of what I’m trying to figure out as a captain, as a leader and also with the coaching staff, is just trying to figure out why can’t we constantly do it for 40 minutes. It’s killed us. We’ve took multiple losses because of it, and I think we need to figure it out ASAP and figure out why we can’t do it.

It’s March 11. You are who you are at this point. The question isn’t whether or not this is going to be fixed (if there’s even another opportunity for it to be fixed), it’s how this group wound up in this place.

One last note here: It should come as no surprise that the two players on the bench at the end of the game who appeared to be completely crushed were Jones and Quinn Slazinski.

3. As disappointing as Louisville’s lack of success in the ACC tournament has been, I suppose it’s worth pointing out that it took us a little while to hit our groove in the Big East back in the day.

Louisville has played in five ACC tournaments (self-imposed ban in 2016, canceled in 2020). They’ve had a double bye twice (2015 and 2017), and lost their quarterfinal opener in both those years. The other three years they’ve started in the second round, winning one game in 2018 and 2019, and losing in that round last night.

In the Big East, Louisville won just one tournament game in its first three seasons, losing in the first round in 2006, starting in the quarters and losing in the semis in 2007, and then losing in the quarters as the 2-seed in 2008. They then won the whole thing in 2009.

What I’m saying is that if drama hadn’t ripped through the program right before the start of the 2017-18 season, we absolutely would have won the ACC tournament that year. It’s science.

I don’t know, I just really miss Friday night semifinal thrillers and then spending all day Saturday counting down the hours until the Cards played for a conference championship.

4. As disappointing as things like the fluctuating effort and some of the shot selection were last night, there were other things where you just sort of shrugged your shoulders.

For instance, Mark Williams going off for 23 and 19. That’s a dude who is simply bigger and better than any post player we had available to throw at him.

Jae’Lyn Withers experienced life at the four and flourished, so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that he hasn’t appeared to be overly enthusiastic about going back to war with guys four inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than he is. JJ Traynor fought valiantly — and seemed to be on the floor every time anything positive was happening for Louisville — but the size disparity between he and Williams was also glaringly apparent on several occasions.

Duke has two very talented players that are both taller than anyone who plays major minutes for Louisville. Knowing this, Coach K ran offense that resulted in a mismatch for one of those two players on nearly every one of the Blue Devils’ halfcourt possession. Williams and Hurt wound up scoring 43 of their team’s 70 points and shot a combined 16-of-26 from the field.

Sometimes it’s a simple game.

5. I know the pauses hurt, I know the injuries changed everything, and I know that ultimately, this team was robbed of a handful of chances to construct a solid NCAA tournament resume. That said, in the last week, Louisville has had two opportunities to put to bed any doubt surrounding its Selection Sunday status. One of those games was at home against a reeling Virginia team, and the other was on a neutral court against a team it had already beaten twice before. The Cards lost both those games by double-digits.

After the past year, I’m desperate to see Louisville’s name on a bracket and to watch the Cards play in an NCAA tournament game, even if that game happens to be played on Thursday. That said, if U of L’s name isn’t called on Sunday, you’ll hear zero complaints from me. At least not complaints directed at the Committee.

You have the ACC Player of the Year runner-up in Carlik Jones, a likely first round draft pick in David Johnson, and a McDonald’s All-American in Samuell Williamson who (last night’s reversion aside) has been coming into his own for the last several weeks. No one had any grand disillusions about this group being Final Four good, but I think it’s reasonable to be upset about the easily avoidable anxiety that’s going to be omnipresent for the next four days.