A long way to go, and a short time to get there.
That could be the operating theme for the University of Louisville basketball team — and its brand new coach.
The words — a long way to go, and a short time to get there — they’re from the Jerry Reed song “East Bound and Down,” from the movie “Smoky and the Bandit,” a road show hit that barreled down the road long before any of the current Cardinals were even born.
But pretty much right on the money: The start-up Cardinals and their new coach looking like they’re having a pretty good time getting on into the season.
With potholes and detours, of course.
But a new paint job and a pretty good set of retread tires seem to be holding up well so far, as UofL has come away with an 8-3 start to the 2018-19 season.
Louisville has played a raft of tough teams, and just a couple of softies, with every game pretty much a learning experience for a team with only one returning starter, a little bit of height and a coming star. Transfers play key roles.
Plus that new coach, Chris Mack, who seems to have hit the hardwood running, putting in new things one day and making corrections the next.
Louisville has beaten Michigan State in overtime, and lost to Marquette in oveertime. It got handled by Tennessee, but won a barnburner with Seton Hall.
Then Louisville lost a hard-fought, hard-nosed defensive struggle to Indiana in a battle of two teams trying to forge their way back into the upper echelon of college basketball.
“When we fixed A, B hurt us,” said Mack after the 68-67 defeat in Bloomington. “And when we fixed A and B, C hurt us. We’ve got to get better than that.”
And that’s just what Mack has in mind.
Louisville beat Akron Saturday afternoon in the KFC Yum! Center, with six days before it plays Robert Morris, and eight days after that to a Dec. 29 date with Kentucky. Then one more week to the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Plenty of time to practice. Work on fundamentals, put in some plays. “And maybe sharpen our saw,” said Mack.
Almost all work, instead of play. But one imagines Mack’s players are ready to plunge in.
“I don’t want to put in too much, overwhelm them, take away from their free basketball instincts,” Mack said. But one understands the coach definitely intends to improve his team heading into the heart of the season.
That’s not to say Louisville will be steamrolling opponents in the ACC. Or marching through March Madness. But the Cardinals have played with poise, and heart — and they’ve made progress right along.
“I said coming into the year I would be disappointed if our team’s not a tournament team,” Mack said. “Maybe people didn’t listen at the time. Not trying to make a wild proclamation. I just think we have enough talent.
“Do we have enough toughness? Do we have enough togetherness? Are we able to be resilient enough when we hit a skid — whether that’s in a game or in the season? We still have a ways to go. A lot to learn about ourselves, and we still have to continue to improve.”
Guard your man
Louisville’s hallmark is defense.
“Just good, solid defense,” says Chuck Nalevanko, a former UofL player and successful high school coach who sometimes serves as an Insider basketball analyst.
“There’s no tricks involved,” says Nalevanko. “He’s not coming out of time-outs in a 1-3-1 zone, then the next time down the floor throwing on a full-court press. That’s not saying he won’t throw in something sometime. But Chris Mack is teaching fundamental man-to-man defense, where the players become entrenched with what their job is.”
Which gives Louisville a very different defensive look than it sported under previous coach Rick Pitino.
Mack’s guards aren’t encouraged to gamble for steals. The big men don’t lay back to reject shots. That worked great for Pitino.
Mack, instead, is offering hard hat work. A union job. Everybody guards their man, tries to keep opponents from getting the ball inside.
“The philosophy is simple,” said Mack. “We want the ball to go toward half-court.”
Not toward the basket.
“We want to keep the ball contained on the third of the floor where the ‘ball screen’ is set,” said Mack. “I just think the more pressure on the ball-handler, the harder it is for him to make a good pass.”
Then Louisville rebounds.
Through 11 games, Louisville is out-rebounding its opponents by an average of five rebounds a game. Not a huge margin, but crucial. Solid rebounding isn’t just a positive statistic, it’s a rally killer. A miss cleaned off the glass abruptly ends an opponent’s possession. And gets the ball going the other way.
Get to the basket
Then on offense, Mack wishes to do unto others what he won’t allow them to do unto him: Get to the basket.
“We have to be a team that posts it, drives it, sets plays in there, and offensive rebounds it in there,” said Mack.
Which was one of the potholes for Louisville at Indiana.
“The few times we tried to drive the ball, it was, ‘Well, you try to drive.’ That guy got stopped and he’d throw it to his buddy, and he’d try to drive. That’s like one-on-three,” said Mack. “And it’s not going to win you a lot of games.”
Louisville guard Christen Cunningham, a graduate transfer, is adept at getting a step to drive. But it takes teamwork to free a driver all the way to the basket.
“Again, our guys weren’t doing it in any way, shape or form out of selfishness (against Indiana). They were doing it more out of inexperience,” Mack said. “And you know on the road things aren’t always going to go smoothly. I should have corrected it, and we should have rectified it during the course of the game. The only thing we can do now is learn from it.”
Which is what the extra December practice days will surely be about.
A man with no conscience
Louisville’s best scoring weapon has been 6-foot-7 sophomore Jordan Nwora, who is averaging 18 points a game and developing into an electric offensive talent.
Nwora has the knack of basketball. He picks up points near the basket just in the flow of the game, and he’s the team’s leading rebounder.
But his signature stroke is a satin smooth jump shot, which he seems to have no compunction about shooting from anywhere. Almost anytime.
“No conscience,” as they say.
And that’s been good for Louisville.
Nwora’s shooting opens the outside shooting for others, like sharpshooter Ryan McMahon, and guards Cunningham and Darius Perry. Louisville even has a defensive specialist guard in Khwan Fore.
But Mack said Louisville needs more points produced in the “paint,” the red-painted rectangle from the foul line to the basket. The close-to-the-basket territory that not only produces high-percentage shots, but free throws — at which Louisville is very adept at shooting. Whoosh!
For the close-in buckets, Mack has looked to 6-10 Steven Enoch, a transfer from Connecticut with a soft shooting touch. But Enoch hasn’t consistently been able to get his feet planted perfectly in the “box.”
In a big-man’s world, you have to be going the right way with your power as you step into position — or the big guy guarding you will send you the wrong way.
“But that’s a coachable thing,” says Nalevanko. “He can get that.”
Other hands around the basket include active 6-5 forward Dwayne Sutton, who’s never seen a party at The Rim he can’t crash. Sutton also plays that straight-up, man-to-man Mack favors.
Plus the aforementioned guard Perry, who had a good freshman season but has missed shots as a sophomore. Mack said Perry has let the misses get to him.
Thinking back to the days of yore, we recall the traditional diagnosis for Perry’s condition would be “sophomoreitis.” Whatever it is, Perry’s got it — but he’s too good not to shake it.
The greatest feeling in the world
The big comer for Louisville might be 6-11 sophomore Malik Williams. A year ago, Williams seemed to envision himself as a tall, cool, three-point shooting dude. But Mack told Williams he can get tall guys anywhere who do nothing but shoot.
Williams will still launch a three, and he’s pretty good at it. But he seems to have discovered the interior game, as well -— and he’s good at that, too.
Williams enjoyed his best game of the season last week leading Louisville to a 72-68 victory over a surprisingly good Lipscomb University team.
Getting most of his playing time in the critical late stages, Williams scored 10 points, with 13 rebounds — in just 17 minutes. He also blocked three shots and established a stern presence around the basket.
“I think our defense is what has helped us win every game we’ve won, and I think that’s where we’re growing the most,” said Williams.
Appearing on a post-game radio show with announcers Paul Rogers and Bob Valvano, Williams seemed thrilled to find himself in the limelight. “Especially doing it in front of all these fans,” said Williams. “They get loud for you, and it’s just the greatest feeling in the world.”
Check, and checkmate
That’s a lot of moving parts for one team, but Mack moves his players around like chess pieces. The coach seems to have an especially deft touch making substitutions. Not just in who he substitutes, but why and when.
In the late minutes of an overtime victory over Michigan State, Mack played it offense-defense, sending multiple players in and out of the game to get the right offense, then the right defense.
Sounds easy, but it takes timing.
It also takes players who are not only willing but well-rehearsed for fast-paced subbing.
The key in-and-out guys against Michigan State were guards McMahon, in to shoot free throws, and Fore, in to play solid defense on Michigan State’s Spartan ball handlers.
Fore loved it, and afterwards, the fifth-year graduate transfer from mid-major University of Richmond noted it was his first-ever victory over a Top 10 team, and first-ever against a team from a “Power Five” conference.
“The players have bought into it, and bought into coach Mack,” says Nalevanko. “You see them coming out of the game with smiles across their faces. It’s really pretty cool.”