LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There was a point in the first half Tuesday night when the Louisville shots finally stopped thudding off the rim and started finding the net. Meanwhile, the Michigan shots kept missing. And when the lead grew to 24-9, the sound in the Yum Center was an echo of the roars from seven seasons ago.
Louisville won the NCAA championship in 2012-13, kind of. You won’t see any trappings of that title in the building—they’ve been expunged by sanctions incurred from the infamous strippers-in-the-basketball-dorm scandal. Vacating that title hit the passionate fans of this city in the gut, and they still haven’t gotten over it.
There likely are more sanctions looming somewhere in the future for Louisville’s part in the federal probe of corruption in college basketball. The school has not yet received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, but it assuredly will. The charges could be as serious as the last scandal.
Tucked between a painful past and a forbidding future is this 2019-20 season—a sweet spot for a beleaguered fan base. This is their moment, and that’s why the energy in the arena for this game against the Wolverines in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge was more like something you’d hear and feel in February, when Duke or North Carolina or Virginia come to town. There was a seize-the-day urgency rippling through the building from the first evidence that Louisville was the better team.
What was clear early remained clear late. The Cardinals never trailed and were rarely threatened on their way to a 58-43 victory. It was an unsightly rock fight that was still joyously embraced by the home crowd.
“I was happy for our fan base,” Cardinals coach Chris Mack said. “They’ve been through hell and back.”
Mack was brought in to deliver this exact slice of heaven, paid handsomely to leave Xavier and guide Louisville through these turbulent times and eventually win like Denny Crum and Rick Pitino once did. He took two big steps in that direction last year, his first season on the job, earning an NCAA Tournament berth and signing a recruiting class ranked No. 11 nationally by Rivals.com. Then mainstays Jordan Nwora and Stephen Enoch opted to return to school instead of going pro, and that put the pieces of a big season in place.
When the first three No. 1-ranked teams of the season all flopped early—first Michigan State, then Kentucky, then Duke—it cleared the way for the 7-0 Cardinals to take over the top ranking this week.
This was their first game at No. 1. And here came Michigan, fresh off a startling Battle for Atlantis tournament title that featured wins over Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga. The undefeated Wolverines rocketed from unranked to No. 4 in the country, and suddenly this game took on an allure nobody saw coming.
As could be expected after that run in the Bahamas, Michigan accumulated a reservoir of confidence heading into its first real road test.
“We want it all,” guard David DeJulius said Monday. “We want all the smoke.”
That quote took about five seconds to reach Louisville’s players. After playing an undistinguished schedule to date, they had rabbit ears for disrespect and primed to play a marquee game.
“We had heard they wanted some smoke,” Nwora said after the game. “They got some smoke. And they got smoked.”
“Yessirrrrr,” chimed in guard Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble, seated to Nwora’s left.
This Smoke Show was, in truth, something of a scheduling setup. It was a tough time for a road game for the Wolverines, coming off last week’s Bahamas trip and playing three high-level games in three days. Louisville, meanwhile, hadn’t gotten on a plane since the season opener Nov. 5, and had circled this game on the schedule as the first real show-off opportunity. The school made it a white-out game, just to add an extra puff of smoke.
So Michigan walked into a trap it could see coming and was handled for 40 minutes. A team averaging 82.4 points barely mustered half that. A team shooting 53% from the field and 42% from the three-point line made 26% of its overall shots and 16% of its threes.
One of the nation’s most productive and efficient offenses was effectively cut in half by Louisville. When Uber-productive point guard Zavier Simpson drove, the Cardinals challenged him and limited his passing lanes. When 7-footer Jon Teske posted up, the Cardinals pushed him out and dug down to take the ball away. When Michigan’s array of three-point shooters spotted up, the Cardinals never let them get comfortably open.
“I thought we played 38 1/2 minutes of as good a defense as we can play,” Mack said.
Here is what happens when you try to score against Louisville: smoke gets in your eyes. Hands get in your face. Bodies get in your path to the basket. And then more bodies and more bodies and more bodies.
The Cardinals have to active and athletic big men to protect the rim in the 6'10" Enoch and 6'11" Malik Williams. They have a junkyard dog forward in Dwayne Sutton, who grabbed 11 rebounds Tuesday. They have a three-guard rotation of Darius Perry, Ryan McMahon and Kimble.
All those players are juniors and seniors, a rare luxury for a power program in the modern game. They’re good enough to keep that talented freshman class largely on the bench—only forward Samuell Williamson, a McDonald’s All-American, saw meaningful playing time in this game.
But mostly the Cardinals have Nwora, who is off to a National Player of the Year start on the season. He is a skilled shooter and an increasingly tough player, driving into the teeth of the Michigan defense, absorbing contact, finishing plays, grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds. Nwora reached his season scoring average, putting 22 on the board, but in this rock fight that accounted for 38% of Louisville’s points.
“He’s a special talent,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said.
Is this a special Louisville team? That’s to be determined, and Mack knows it (“We can’t feel like we’ve been crowned,” he said. “Long season”). But in a year that has begun with just about every top team looking fallible, why not the Cardinals?
This is their sweet spot. Their moment of hope and joy sandwiched between painful sanctions and potential sanctions. And the roars in the Yum Center Tuesday night were proof that Louisville’s fans are ready to seize what could be a fleeting opportunity.