LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Yes, the No. 5-ranked Louisville basketball team has, from time to time, come out of the gate slowly this season. Yes, it has sputtered here and there on offense, but it had generally found a way to make the plays it needed, especially in winning its past 10 games.
All of that ended Wednesday night in Atlanta, when the Cardinals had more airballs than answers in a 64-58 loss to Georgia Tech.
It goes down as a bad loss -- though it should be noted that it would've been a "Tier A" victory in Ken Pomeroy's basketball rankings accounting, against a team ranked 78th in the nation.
It won't play that way to the rank-and-file, however. Georgia Tech was 11-13 coming into the game, and 5-8 in the ACC.
Louisville had no business losing this one, not with its talent and experience. And Louisville has no business taking the first few minutes of games off, even it it has gotten away with it in the past.
On Wednesday, it was down 12-2 before fans had settled into their seats.
"The first four minutes, we looked like zombies," Louisville coach Chris Mack told reporters after the game. "We looked like we had no readiness or toughness or excitement to play."
Speaking with Bob Valvano on his postgame radio show, the start of the game sounded as if it bothered Mack as much as anything.
"The start put us behind the 8-ball," Mack said. "To not be ready to play. It's one thing if you miss a few shots, but the lack of resistance on defense to start the game, to spot them a 10-point lead in the first four-minute war, is just inexcusable. It hasn't been necessarily the trend, but when it happens, it seems like we're in for the same night every time. Something's got to change with our starts. I know we had a good one against Virginia, but we didn't have a good one against Wake, we didn't have a good one against N.C. State. Something has to change, and obviously that has to start with me, and maybe different lineups, one that's ready to go."
A by-product of a lack of intensity often is a lack of shooting. The undead are terrible shooters. The Cardinals made just 3 of 24 three-point shots in the game. They shot just 34 percent.
Still, the game never got away form them. They remained in striking distance throughout, but could never get out of their own way, whether it was from missing easy looks around the basket or from unforced turnovers.
Jordan Nwora, the Cardinals' preseason ACC player of the year, was MIA. He went just 1 of 6 from the field and played only 10 second half minutes. Mack didn't point out anyone individually after the game, but said he was disappointed in several players.
"As a coach you always want to sort of know what you’re going to get, and tonight there were a few guys I really had no idea what we were going to get," Mack said. "And then you look at the end of the game and they didn’t give us anything.”
On the plus side, Louisville got outstanding effort from Malik Williams and David Johnson. They scored 16 points each, sparking the Cardinals to a 40-2 edge in bench scoring. But it wasn't close to enough.
Five times the Cardinals had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead in the late going, and they came up short every time. Their primary offense in the final minute was David Johnson driving to the rim for quick scores. But when he fouled out with less than 20 seconds left, Louisville came down with a chance to tie the game, but Lamarr Kimble lost the ball with 8 seconds left, and that was the game.
"We did not deserve to win the game with the way we played for 40 minutes," Mack told Valvano. "We had a couple of spurts where we made a couple of plays, but every time we got within a couple, we turned the ball over. That’s why we’re sitting here with a loss."
Here's the problem for Louisville. Its 10-game winning streak came, with a couple of exceptions, against teams that likely aren't headed to the NCAA Tournament. The win against Duke was a good one. Likewise the win over Virginia. But the average ranking of those 10 opponents was No. 80. You have to go back to 2013-14 for a 10-game conference stretch rated that poorly, and before that you have to go to 2005.
While Louisville has played well and shot well over the past 10 games, it is still a team with some things to prove down the stretch of this season -- and losing at Georgia Tech is evidence.
In reality, the Cardinals had won some of those 10 games impressively, but it was not a dominant run. There were still some issues to address. Nothing brings them to the forefront like a disappointing loss. Perhaps Mack can make use of this with his players.
He indicated he'll revisit the starting lineup. He'll also likely keep looking harder at the 2-3 zone defense that seemed to give Louisville a lift against Georgia Tech. He might also consider more full-court pressure.
Still, even when it had transition opportunities on Wednesday, Louisville didn't take advantage. It was 11 of 18 on layups in the game. And the bottom line is that, as poorly as the Cardinals played, if they played with the kind of energy and intensity they display when they're at their best, they still win this game.
"I know in the first half we had 5 or 6 transition opportunities on offense and we either turn the ball over or miss the shot, and the same in the second half," Mack told Valvano. "If you can’t score in transition with the talent we have, you’re putting yourself in a tough situation."
Every team has bad nights, and Louisville had a chance to win this one even though it was out of sorts the entire way.
Regardless, there are some head-scratching elements in this one, from Nwora's no-show to the freakishly bad outside shooting. At the beginning of the week, Louisville was projected as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with an outside chance at a No. 1 depending on what happened around college basketball.
After Wednesday's loss, the reality is that they've got quite a bit of work to do before the seeds are sorted.
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