AJB: It has been a mostly positive start for the Cardinals, minus a big loss to Wisconsin. With a win over rival Kentucky, and a good start to ACC play, what is the mood right now around the program?
Matt McGavic: This is a Louisville team that has actually exceeded most people’s expectations. There were a ton of questions regarding this group considering they were returning only seven scholarship players, and they accounted for just 24.6% of their scoring, 28.5% of its rebounding, 24.4% of its assists and 10.6% of its three-point goals from the 2019-20 season. Throw in the injuries to Malik Williams & Charles Minlend, two presumptive starters who have yet to return from a foot and knee injury respectively, and many assumed that Louisville would be in for a rough start. While the Cards haven’t been perfect through the calendar year, the general consensus is more positive than in the preseason.
AJB: It looks like there is not going to be an elite team in the ACC this year, which means the title could go to anyone. What does Louisville need to improve upon to better their chances of winning the conference?
MM: The first thing that comes to mind is cut down on the turnovers. In their first four games of the season, it was just 11.3 times per game. Against Wisconsin, Pitt and Kentucky, it has ballooned to 16.0 turnovers per game. Louisville has been doing it in a wide variety of ways, too. From simple errant passes or bad decision making, to shot clock violations and simply running out of bounds. You could maybe get away with such silly mistakes against, and no offense, a Boston College or Wake Forest, but they will have no shot against the upper-echelon ACC teams if this trend keeps up. Something else that has stood out recently is their tendency to become stagnant on offense.
In the last few games, there have been several instances, especially vs. Kentucky, where the offense devolves into iso-ball with the other four players on the court having little involvement in the play. Their scoring average was 77.8 points per game through their first four contests, but 58.0 points in their last three. Of course, teams like Evansville & Prairie View A&M are a lot different than Wisconsin & Kentucky, especially when coming off a nearly three-week gap in action, but Louisville still needs to work on their offensive prowess regardless.
AJB: The guard play of Carlik Jones and David Johnson looks to be a strength of this offense? Can you talk a little about what the pair brings to the team?
MM: Louisville’s play in the backcourt is undoubtedly the strength of this team. Jones, a graduate transfer from Radford University, has absolutely proven he can play at the Power Five level. At one point, he led the team in points, assists and rebounds, and still leads in the former two categories at 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Johnson, a local product who was a standout at Trinity High School, trails Jones in all three categories but has been just as effective with his 13.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game. The duo can score from anywhere on the court in nearly any fashion. They’re good at shooting threes, they fight through contact in the paint, they have great playmaking ability. Where they need to work on is their decision making when penetrating the lane, particular Johnson, as he’s already amassed 29 turnovers.
AJB: Who is the X factor to watch out for on the Cardinals?
MM: There are a couple guys I could choose from, but I’m going to go with Samuell Williamson. The sophomore forward is the first, and only, McDonalds All-American to sign with Chris Mack so far in his three year tenure, and he was expected to be a somewhat solid contributor on a loaded 2019-20 squad. Instead, he averaged just 4.4 points in 15.3 minutes per game. He’s taken a good step forward, as he’s averaging 9.6 & 6.9, but often, you’re not sure what you’re going to get out of him on any given night. There are times where he exudes confidence on the court, and others where he plays noticeably reserved and reluctant. If Williamson can become Louisville’s permanent third go-to guy behind Jones & Johnson, their offense is much more efficient.
AJB: If Louisville wins on Saturday they will have to ___________
MM: Play a much more complete game. Their recent offensive woes is what has mainly prevented them from blowing out Pitt & Kentucky. They were up 24-9 in the early goings against Pitt, but then Louisville’s bench couldn’t get much going offensively against Panthers, which allowed them to come back and it be a back and forth game in the middle 20 minutes. Kentucky couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat, but Louisville’s stagnant offense prevented them from putting any distance between them and the Wildcats. With the exception of the Wisconsin game, which can be mainly chalked up to their 18-day layoff thanks to COVID-19, the Cardinals have played very solid defense as of late. If they can get it done on both ends of the court, they can walk out of the Conte Forum with a win.
AJB: Secure the ball. From lazy or inaccurate entry & wing passes, making the wrong decision or read when penetrating the lane, not paying attention to the shot clot or the out of bounds line, Louisville has been turnover happy against Wisconsin, Pitt and Kentucky. If BC pulls off the upset, the first reason I can think to attribute this to is turnovers. Wait, is this basketball or football?