Jordan Nwora and his teammates are preparing for the NCAA Tournament. | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

The University of Louisville opens play in the NCAA Tournament Thursday, March 21, at noon (CBS) in Des Moines, Iowa, playing Minnesota — a matchup of two middle-weight punchers lost in the brackets of a sprawling 68-team tournament.

Few college basketball fans will care much about the outcome, expecting whichever team survives Thursday to be sent reeling on Saturday by heavyweight Michigan State.

But that’s not the way first-year Louisville coach Chris Mack looks at it.

“This is my 20th NCAA Tournament as a player, assistant coach, head coach — and every one of them I feel like I’m 9 years old on Christmas morning,” says Mack.

UofL Coach Chris Mack is all smiles. | Photo by Bill Doolittle

And the coach thinks his team feels the same way.

“Do I think we can play better in certain areas, yes. But I think our team spirit has been a really good one,” says Mack. “I’ve enjoyed coming to practice with our group. We’re not perfect. We have some holes here and there, but so do a lot of teams in this tournament. I like the way our guys continue to fight and stick together.”

A lot of clubs that have played long, hard schedules and gotten punched around pretty hard by the top teams in their leagues might not be good bets to play well in the tourney. A bunch of tired soldiers ready for it to be over with.

Not that they wouldn’t like to make a big showing in the big show. But if they can’t, then they’re more ready for Spring Break than March Madness.

Louisville fans will recall a season like that two years ago when the team came in with a good record but was worn out with it. Michigan sent Louisville home quickly, and predictably. There were no tears in the Louisville locker room.

That esprit had kind of been knocked out of the school with the scandals involving the previous coach and the university president. The embarrassments. A big dip in home attendance.

The school self-imposed a ban on playing in the NCAA in 2016, lost to Michigan in 2017 and didn’t make the show in 2018. Pretty bleak.

But Chris Mack seems to be just what the doctor, or in this case the new athletic director Vince Tyra, ordered. Tyra didn’t need a preening peacock. He needed a skilled basketball coach and found one in Mack — a guy who still wakes up for Selection Sunday like a 9-year-old on Christmas day.

And a team that gets it.

On any given night — watch out!
Ryan McMahon and Christen Cunningham celebrate after a game | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

“I learned a lot about our team in New York,” says Mack, looking back to the start of the season when Louisville opened against top teams Tennessee and Marquette in a nationally televised tournament played in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Both edged Louisville. But the Cardinals looked good, with a new lineup and a new coach.

“Certainly, we wanted to win one, if not both of them,” says Mack. “Felt like we had the Marquette game, but came back with the sense that if those are two of the top-20 teams in the country, then we can give ourselves a chance to win on any given night. I think our players felt that way as well.”

And they did. Louisville won on a lot of “given nights,” and lost a few. Beat Michigan State in overtime. Lost to Indiana. Beat Seton Hall. Lost to Kentucky. But then the Cardinals went on a snappy January run to rise up in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings and soar up into the Associated Press Top 25.

Mostly Louisville did it with defense. Like a Union Made team.

And one guy who could score every night, Jordan Nwora.

“We never felt like we were playing so far above our heads that, gosh, we’re going to have to match that in order to keep a game close,” Mack says. “Never felt that way, and I think those two games against those two opponents sort of gave our guys a sense of, like, we need to play better in certain areas to finish games. So it was nice to be able to do that in our very next game against a very high-level opponent.”

(An 82-78 overtime victory over No. 9 Michigan State.)

Then the bottom dropped out.

Open up the curtains
Coach Mack celebrates during the Michigan State game. | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

February came around, and it looked like Uber forgot to pick up Cinderella at the ball. Louisville dropped games it had led — suddenly getting stranded out on the highway with headlights in their eyes.

It was hard to watch. Louisville buried Duke with three-pointers in the first half, then couldn’t get a shot when Duke turned on an all-out press in the second half.

One Louisville guard was so wearied, his leg just slid into a walking call. Another Louisville guard handed the ball to a hungry Duke defender — who ate it. At least that’s what it seemed like.

No one knows how much starch that bad run took out of Louisville’s confidence. Mostly the team just stopped scoring. UofL even lost to Boston College. Bad times.

But somehow the Cardinals steadied for the close of the season and now look like they’ve survived. A nurse pulled back the curtains and let a little sunshine in.

Mack isn’t a rookie. He knows teams can lose their juice, and lose their will.

“The teams in this league can steal your confidence, especially when they’re playing at a high level,” says Mack. “But we earned where we are today.”

So why not expect something good might happen?

“There are teams that go into the NCAA on a roll and they’re home on Thursday night. And there’s teams that have lost a few down the stretch and nobody really believes in them, and the next thing you know they’re in the Elite Eight. I’ve seen both sides of it, and I know our group is excited to play. I know Minnesota will be excited to play as well.”

‘My No. 1 goal’
Christen Cunningham | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

Few players will be more thrilled to play in the NCAA than Louisville guard Christen Cunningham, a graduate senior transfer from Samford, now starting for Louisville in his fifth year of college.

“My No. 1 goal when I was transferring was to get to a team that could make the NCAA tournament,” says Cunningham, a 6-foot-2 guard from Georgetown, Ky.

Now that he’s earned the chance to play in the NCAA, Cunningham says it feels great — for everyone on the team.

“I’m ecstatic, getting to watch it with my teammates,” says Cunningham. “They didn’t get to play in the NCAA tournament last year, so this is something we’ve been working for since we met last June.”

One of Louisville’s problems is its smallish guards have real trouble with big guards such as those at Kentucky and Duke. But Cunningham goes to war and guards Khwan Fore, Ryan McMahon and Darius Perry battle on. Perry has more size and strength, and Mack has played him more in recent weeks.

Fore, who is a graduate transfer from Richmond, played a vital role in the overtime victory over Michigan State. He noted that it was his first-ever victory over a Top-25 team.

All that means a lot to those guys. And signals Louisville may not be looking for Spring Break beaches. Not yet.

“I think we’re trending upwards, that’s for sure,” says Cunningham. “Our offense has gotten better, our defense is still good. We’ve lost to some good teams, but we can’t let that rob us of our confidence. We played one of the toughest schedules in the country.”

Which has Mack smiling instead of worrying.

“As crazy as it sounds, I’ve always wanted my team to really be excited and energized coming to practice, and I don’t think every team is,” says Mack. “There’s so much to play for, and these are the games everyone remembers the most. These are lifetime memories in front of you if you can grab them.”

A 1928 field house

Doubtless, Minnesota feels the same way after a 21-13 season in the rugged Big Ten, which earned the Golden Gophers a No. 10 seed. Louisville (20-13) is a 7 seed. Both kind of in the middle of the bracket, well out of the limelight

When Minnesota coach Richard Pitino was an assistant coach at Louisville, he carried a reputation as an excellent scout. So expect special defenses for UofL shooter Nwora.

Minnesota does have burly guards, which is a problem for Louisville. But Louisville’s defense might be able to handle the Minnesota big men. Former UofL center Matz Stockman now is a 7-foot reserve for Minnesota.

Minnesota’s Williams Arena was built in 1928. | Courtesy of University of Minnesota

One neat thing about Minnesota is it plays in one of the grand old basketball barns of the Big Ten — Williams Arena field house built in 1928.

It’s got a terrific student following at home, and the Minnesota teams always look good on the road in their maroon and gold. Maybe not quite as cool as Louisville Atherton High’s mulberry and gold. But pretty good.

The state has the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, rather than plain old Democrats. But Jesse “The Body” Ventura was elected governor on the Reform Party ticket. The Minnesota State Fair is the biggest of all state fairs. Garrison Keillor is not actually from Lake Woebegon, but he can take you there. Bob Dylan, Judy Garland and the Andrews Sisters all hail from Minnesota. But there’s not one famous basketball player that we can think of.

Weighing all that scientific data, we’ll give the nod to Louisville in the first round. Michigan State will probably handle Louisville on Saturday. The rest of the East Region is just all about Duke. And Mt. Zion Williamson.

Little room for bold predictions

Looking over the tournament, it seems the best regional showdown will be Kentucky and North Carolina in the Mideast Region in Kansas City. North Carolina is the fastest fast-break team in the country, and Kentucky isn’t slow.

The South Region is planned for the exclusive amusement of Virginia, but I’m not so hot on the Chess Game Cavaliers. Maybe Kansas State is the right team. Nobody is picking Villanova, the defending NCAA champion that lost last year’s star players and came in at 25-9. But Big East rival Providence coach Ed Cooley has a warning: “For everybody who doesn’t think Villanova’s still one of the best teams in the country — wait until you play them.”

Gonzaga is another vulnerable fave. I have been happily picking the Zags for years, but I think Syracuse might get Gonzaga.

Are we talking about the Syracuse with the same 20-13 record as Louisville?

Yep. One recalls a year a Syracuse team came in similarly unheralded, but waltzed all the way to the Final Four. Someone asked Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim if he was surprised. “Why should I be surprised?” Boeheim replied. “We’re Syracuse.”

That said, I will take Michigan, the leaders of the West.

Upsetters?

The Cheese Head hats from Wisconsin-Green Bay have almost faded from memory. Longshots don’t really have much of a chance to get rolling with the pathetically unfair seeding method the NCAA uses to grease along their big teams.

You take a team like Abilene Christian, which goes 27-6 for the best season in school history, and the NCAA feeds them to Kentucky.

And those wonderful mid-major days? Butler, where, oh where, have you gone?

So one doesn’t need much expertise to select a Final Four of Duke, Kentucky, Kansas State and Michigan.

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