Mack vs. WKU

Louisville head coach Chris Mack, center, instructs his team during a timeout in their game against Western Kentucky at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. on Dec. 1, 2020.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The University of Louisville men’s basketball team has a game tonight, which is novelty enough in this strange COVID season. After sitting for 18 days in December, it has played only twice in the 2 ½ weeks following its victory over Kentucky.

But if all goes according to schedule (pause to let you chuckle a bit), Chris Mack’s No. 16-ranked Cardinals will play 3 times in the next 5 days, beginning with tonight’s 8:30 p.m. tipoff at Wake Forest.

Quietly, Louisville enters the game tied for first in the ACC at 3-0 in the league, its best start ever in the ACC and best conference start in 7 years. A win tonight would make it 4-0 in conference for the first time since it opened 8-0 in the Big East in 2008-09.

The Cardinals have won 4 straight, including a pair of ACC road wins. They re-entered the Associated Press poll this week at No. 16. But in a year of starts and stops, don’t get Mack started on the polls.

“I don’t really care about the rankings,” Mack said. “I don’t even think about how much we jumped. I don’t know what we were ranked last week, if we were even ranked. So I don’t know. I could care less. … Next Monday we’ll have 3 more games under our belt in our league. We’ll know a lot more about our team. That’s not to say we will arrive. We have a long, long way to go.”

One big change could be around the corner. Charles Minlend, a transfer from San Francisco, has returned to the court, though Mack says he could still be a little bit away from significant minutes as he works himself into form coming off a sprained MCL suffered on Nov. 5. The 6-4 guard from Concord, N.C., averaged 14.5 points a game while earning All WAC honors as the leading scorer at San Francisco last season. He’s a physical guard, who averaged 4.5 rebounds a game, and figures to make a significant contribution for the Cardinals.

Where he’ll fit into the current lineup will be interesting. Louisville is already having great success at the guard spot. Starters Carlik Jones and David Johnson are the only two players in the ACC who rank in the ACC’s Top 20 in scoring, rebounding and assists. Regardless, Minlend is one of two remaining pieces that will make the Cardinals a tougher, more experienced team. The other, Malik Williams, still is a bit of a ways off from returning.

“(Minlend) is coming along great,” Mack said. “I think going from rehab to playing, there's a conditioning element, there's a timing element, there's a confidence element that hopefully he gains even more over the next few days of practice. But there's nothing we're doing in practice that he's not a part of at this point, so I expect Charles to be on the floor at some point and continue to improve in all areas I just talked about -- conditioning, timing. It's a big jump when you've been out as long as he has. We're excited to add him into the fold. We've missed him. He provides leadership and some perimeter help as well.”

The Cardinals haven’t gotten off to the best start in several games, but they’ve played well on the whole during their win streak. Mack has had them working on end-game and other situations in practice over the past week. And he likes his team’s approach to games, especially on the road.

“The one thing our team doesn’t lack on the sideline is spirit, is energy,” he said. “I think it’s needed when you go into empty buildings, where it feels like a scrimmage, at times. But our team has got to get better at details. We worked a lot over the weekend in situational work, up 1 (with) 30 seconds to go. Down 2 a minute to go. We tend to not understand and execute details. And that goes with young players. Experience is a great teacher, and a lot of times it’s failed experience that teaches you. And we’d like to eliminate the failed experience on game night and have them occur in practice and learn from them. I like the approach, but I don’t think we’re nearly good enough right now to think that we can close out games consistently.”

Wake Forest comes into tonight’s game having lost three straight.

“I would say that they're playing a lot or small ball, probably out of necessity,” Mack said. “I always felt coach (Danny) Manning's team had great size around the basketball and they were always punching it into a frontcourt player. I always felt like they were bigger than they are now, but there's several different ways to skin a cat. I think coach (Steve) Forbes' teams, no matter where he's coached, always play extremely hard, competitive. You can see him on the sideline how much every possession matters to him and his guys are getting it and they raced out in both games this past week. So I have great respect for how hard his kids are playing; I think it's more of a five-out system right now than we've seen from Wake teams in the past, but probably out of necessity.”

Louisville is 5-1 against Wake Forest since joining the ACC, and has won each of the past 3 meetings by double digits. Wake had 5 games canceled in December and did not play between Nov. 27 and New Year’s Eve. Junior forward Isaiah Mucious leads Wake in scoring (11.3 ppg) and rebounding (4.8 rpg). Graduate guard Jonah Antonio is second in the ACC in three-point field goal percentage (.448. 13-of-29).

There are plenty of Wake Forest connections on the Louisville sideline. Cardinals assistant Dino Gaudio was head coach at Wake from for 3 seasons after spending 6 there as associate head coach. Mack was an assistant at Wake for 3 seasons under Skip Prosser. This will be his second trip back as Louisville coach.

“It's not a hard place to go back to at all,” he said. “In fact, it's really comforting, it's a very familiar place. It's like going to visit your childhood home, so to speak. It brings back a flood of memories, where it's walking into Joel Coliseum, whether it's driving by campus, an opportunity to go by the old house my wife and I lived at. Keeps you young a little bit when you see those things. But there still are a lot of people at Wake who were there when I was an assistant coach, which I think goes to show how special a place it is, that you have employees that have been there for 20-plus years. So even though it's been a while since I've been there, there are a lot of familiar faces, maybe not with the basketball program but certainly in the athletic department and around campus. So it's always special going back to a place where I spent some quality years.”

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