LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Nobody wants to hear this. Nobody wants to read it. Doesn’t matter. Sometimes all you can do is write the truth as you see it.
The Louisville men's basketball team that suffered a 99-54 loss at North Carolina Saturday night faced a perfect storm of circumstances. If Chris Mack enumerated them, you’d call them a perfect storm of excuses.
But he didn’t. I will.
For the second time this season, the Cardinals came off a coronavirus-mandated layoff and were rocked. You thought the 85-48 loss at Wisconsin was bad? The sequel was even worse.
Louisville’s loss on Saturday, according to stat guru Kelly Dickey, matched the second most-lopsided loss in school history. It is the program’s biggest conference loss ever, and its most-lopsided loss of any kind since 1939.
So, clearly there’s a problem on restarts. Why would Louisville have such a problem when other programs don’t? I don’t know what other programs are doing.
I will tell you this. Chris Mack’s Louisville team is not going to roll the balls out and out-talent many people. His system is not built around five guys taking the court and exerting one-on-one superiority against the other team.
For Louisville to be successful, it has to move the ball. It has to be five players on a string defensively. It has to be a team. It has to keep tempo under control. Practice is at a premium. And starts and stops don’t help.
Add in the general rust from a layoff. The conditioning. The acclimation to a North Carolina team that plays fast and is bigger than Louisville can replicate in practice. Add in the uncertainty over whether this game would even be played, or who would be playing in it. Add in the time without Mack, who was out with COVID-19, and any impact that may have had on him.
For Louisville to be a great team this season, it was going to have to be a steady build. It’s hard to do that when you have construction delays.
I get it, this is disappointing. To fans who thought this team could be special — and it could reach some semblance of that in the coming weeks. But these layoffs have stunted what needed to be steady improvement.
"Give Carolina a ton of credit," Mack said. "They obviously were ready to play. On our end it shows the importance of practice. And the lack of practice and continuity that we lost just because of the last three weeks. We’ve got to figure out how to get better from here. And it starts with having the ability to practice consistently every, single day. It’s tough in February to take off three weeks, practicing sporadically every few days, some guys able to do individuals, some guys out. It wasn’t fun today, but like we did with Wisconsin earlier in the year, we’ve got to figure out what was broken, and get better at it."
The easy part: Everything was broken. Louisville couldn’t defend; it gave up 61% shooting, the highest percentage by an opponent since 2001. The Cardinals turned the ball over 18 times, and North Carolina turned those turnovers into 26 points. They couldn’t shoot the 3 — going 1 for 16 from beyond the arc in the game and 0 for 11 in the second half. They gave up 58 points in the paint and 26 on fast breaks. Getting back on defense and defending the lane are staples for this program.
On Saturday, they just weren’t there.
It was as if, after a decent start, the adrenaline just tanked 10 minutes into the game, and North Carolina ran away and kept on running. Louisville was stepping on the gas, and nothing was happening.
"The biggest statement of the game probably is that we caught them at a very good time," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "They haven’t had practices like normal, like they had early in the year. ... We caught them at a good time for us. It wasn’t a very good time for them.”
So that’s part of it. And frankly, I have to believe that’s the biggest part of it, having watched this team all year. The only game outside of the two COVID-19 restart debacles that looked anything like them was Louisville's loss to Florida State.
If you want to make the case that Louisville can’t cope with really good opponents, the case is there, especially in this makeshift season. You might also make the case that they struggle with longer teams that pressure the ball well.
Louisville got 13 points from Carlik Jones on Saturday night, and nobody else reached double digits in a game in which Louisville got 72 possessions. The Cardinals scored on only 27 of them. They went just 11 for 22 on layups.
That’s not who they have been all season. It’s not who they will be the rest of the season. But it’s who they have been a couple of times this season.
Mack took responsibility for trying, perhaps, to install too much in a single day’s preparation. He said Louisville tried to trap the post, but North Carolina was quicker than the Louisville player diving to trap the post. In short, he said, he may have tried to do too much in the short preparation time. And, he added, it got away when Louisville began to turn the ball over midway through the first half.
After the game, Mack said he talked to his team, "about some things that I thought we did have control of. Our inability to keep them off the offensive glass in the first 10 minutes. They had 10 offensive rebounds in 12 minutes, several of them after missed free throws. And then there was our inability to get back. We’ve been a good defensive transition team all season. Obviously, Carolina is as fast as it gets and they have a relentless pace, and we didn’t get the job done. But be that as it may, we have to turn the page. ... We’ve got two practices to make ourselves a better basketball team and try to get back to where we were. And we’ve got to stick together."
Louisville is back in action at 7 p.m. Tuesday when Notre Dame visits the KFC Yum! Center.
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