DURHAM, N.C. (WDRB) – The high point of the University of Louisville basketball season a year ago, arguably, came when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called timeout in the KFC Yum! Center with just under 10 minutes to play and his team trailing by 23.
Louisville’s Jordan Nwora turned to the student section and raised his arms, raising the decibels in the building. He turned back around to head to the bench with a wide smile, taking it all in, even glancing at the scoreboard.
In Duke’s huddles, Krzyzewski was telling his talented No. 2-ranked team that they weren’t losers, but they were playing like losers. Krzyzewski was making mental notes about which lessons would he seek to drive home first after the game. What did he want his players to take away from a humbling of this magnitude? He also was putting on what he called his “strong face.” He didn’t necessarily believe it, but he kept telling his players they were going to come back and win.
“I was hoping that we wouldn’t lose by 35,” he said. “I’m not kidding. We could have. So you’re talking positive, but I don’t know (about my) belief . . . At that point I think I may have been telling a lie."
Whether he really believed is less important, of course, than his players believing. Krzyzewski brought Jordan Goldwire off the bench, he gave the Blue Devlis a spark on defense, and sometimes all it takes is a spark. The low point of the U of L basketball season was just around the corner, when it faltered under Duke’s defensive pressure to give up not only the lead, but the game to Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett and their talented teammates.
The game notes from Duke heading into Saturday’s 6 p.m. ESPN Game Day meeting between the teams calls that game, “one of the great comebacks in Duke history.” And Duke, you know, has some history.
There were far worse performances last season by Louisville. But in terms of what was lost, of how things might have been different, there wasn’t anything more psychologically damaging than that experience.
Asked on Friday if he had watched the tape of that loss, Louisville coach Chris Mack said he had not.
Is that unusual? “Probably,” he said.
Was it because the loss stung so much? “Yeah,” he said softly.
Of course, there’s little reason for Mack to look at that tape. Duke is a far different team heading into Saturday’s matchup. But his Cardinals are much the same. Mack will send out much the same lineup that faltered last season against Duke. But their struggles with prosperity have changed only a little.
They’re still prone to giving back leads. They’re still being questioned about the stability of their guard play.
This Duke team, in fact, will test Louisville’s backcourt even more.
“They're really tenacious on defensive end,” Mack said. “I think a lot more than a year ago. They're really denying almost all over the floor. In (Tre) Jones and Goldwire you have maybe two of the best defensive perimeter players in our league. Those guys attack the ball, they hawk passing lanes. They do a really good job of putting pressure on the perimeter.”
The Blue Devils are also far different offensively. They rank fifth in the nation in scoring (83.1 points per game) and are ninth in field goal percentage (48.9 percent). To show their balance, they also rank fifth in blocked shots (6.4 per game).
Freshman Vernon Carey, a 6-10 center, leads the Blue Devils at 17.6 points per game and is shooting just over 60 percent from the field. Jones is averaging 15.1 points per game, but has averaged nearly 19 per game over his past three. Cassius Stanley, a 6-6 freshman guard, is averaging 16 points per game and shooting better than 60 percent from the field.
“Offensively, they're very unique in that they know what they're doing, they're throwing it right into Vernon Carey,” Mack said. “He does a great job of running the floor, he seals incredibly deep, he has a great touch. They sort of play off of him. And obviously Jones has become a much better scorer than he was a year ago. That wasn't his role, but he's shooting it, whether it's mid-range or from the three, with a lot more confidence. His percentage is up and the team's percentage from the 3-point line is a lot higher than it was a year ago.”
For Louisville, Mack said the key is on the boards. He has a good rebounding team, but Duke has been the top offensive rebounding team in the nation. Clearly, the Louisville coach goes into this test stressing toughness, and the dirty work of defending, and rebounding the defensive glass.
For Louisville, it’s another test against an elite opponent. The Cardinals have struggled with long, athletic teams that pressure the ball defensively, and that’s the definition of Duke. But experience against Texas Tech, Kentucky and Florida State should help Louisville in this one, though it won’t much help with the difficulties of playing in Cameron Indoor Stadium, where students were camping out in Krzyzewskiville the night before and have had all day of College GameDay hype to get them going.
“I think there are a lot of important factors for us,” Mack said. “One of the biggest factors will be our ability to keep them off the offensive glass. They lead our league in offensive rebounding. Trying to limit Carey's deep touches. He's going to touch the ball because that's their focus, to throw it in. Is he catching it three feet or is he catching it 10 feet away? We've got to be able to do our work early, pressure the ball, pressure the passers in a way that they can't just find him under the hoop. And we certainly have to take care of the ball and play offense 30 feet from the basket, not 50 feet from the basket. It's easier said than done, but that's what you have to do if you want to give yourself a chance to win.”
Duke opened as a 7-point favorite, and overnight the line moved to eight. For this Louisville team, it’s a chance to prove something, perhaps as much to itself as to anyone else.
The Blue Devils, who have used a 9-10 player rotation most of the season, have been a couple of players down, but regain 6-7 sophomore Joey Baker for this one.
“We'll have a challenge, for sure,” Mack said. “And we've got to live up to that challenge.”
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