Mack, Cards like their chances in competitive ACC tourney

By RUSS BROWN, Kentucky Today

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) — Louisville’s basketball team is only 4-5 in its last nine games and has beaten only two Atlantic Coast Conference teams with a winning record all season, both in the KFC Yum! Center. Yet the Cardinals (13-6, 8-5 ACC) seem to be a self-assured bunch as they head into the ACC Tournament seeking their first title and hoping to move up the NCAA Tournament seeding ladder.

UofL, the No. 7 seed, will meet either No. 10 Duke (11-11, 9-9) or No. 15 Boston College (4-15, 2-11) in a second-round game at 6:30 p.m. (ACCN) Wednesday in Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum. If the Cards win they will face No. 2 Florida State (15-5, 11-4), a team that handled them with relative ease, 78-65, on Jan. 18 in the Yum!

Louisville has had a record of futility in the ACC Tourney. Since joining the league for the 2015 season it is 2-4, has never won more than one game and has lost its debut the other three times (UofL was ineligible in 2016 and the tourney was canceled last year due to the pandemic).

Nevertheless….

“We’re pretty confident,” sophomore guard David Johnson said following Saturday’s 68-58 homecourt loss to Virginia. “We feel like when we’re all on our ‘A’ game we can compete with anybody in the country. Everybody is moving forward, heads up, going into the ACC Tournament.”

“This is the fun part of the season, the ACC and NCAA Tournaments,” forward Samuell Williamson said. “We’ll be ready.”

It wouldn’t be wise to count Louisville or as many as nine other teams out of the championship picture, given the unpredictability of the ACC this season and the lack of a clear favorite. Virginia (17-6, 13-4), the regular season champ, has lost three of its last five games. Second-place Florida State has dropped two of its last three, including a clunker against 11th-seeded Notre Dame Saturday. The hottest teams in the league No. 4 Georgia Tech (15-8, 11-6), which has won six straight, and No. 9 NC State (13-9, 9-8), with five in a row.

“I certainly would have liked to go in having won three of three and four of the last five, but it wasn’t to be,” UofL coach Chris Mack said. “But like I told our guys, there isn’t a dominating team in this league. There are some really good teams, but there’s not a team that we can’t beat if we play well. But at the same time, there’s not a team that can’t beat us if we’re not locked in and playing extremely hard.

“These are the games we play for and work hard for all summer and preseason to put ourselves in a position where we’re playing for some things. I like where our team is at. Tournament play is all about being connected, playing your best, and they’ve stuck together all year long. I think we have a very close-knit group, a hungry group. So we’re going to head to Greensboro with some excitement.”

Mack is confident that All-ACC guard Carlik Jones will bounce back from his nightmarish performance against Virginia when he went 2-for-15 and scored only six points after reaching double figures in every other game this season.

“Carlik is a competitor, so I can see him with a fire in his belly and being much better,” Mack said. “Like a lot of guys, he was really, really down. But he came back ready to practice this week and he’s heading to Greensboro in the right frame of mind.”

Two other key players for the Cards if they’re going to have a successful stay in Greensboro are Williamson and redshirt freshman Jae’Lyn Withers.

Since being benched then regaining his starting spot, Williamson has averaged 11.8 points and 11.3 rebounds in his last six games. Withers has contributed 13.3 points and 9.3 rebounds over the last three outings, but Mack wants him to show more consistency within games. For instance, against the Cavaliers, Withers got all 12 of his points and four of his six rebounds in the second half.

“In order for our team to be a good team, we need Jae’Lyn to be play consistently every night,” Mack said. “We need him to be really good. We need all of our guys to be really good if we’re ging to win games against really good competition.”

This is what the Cards also need: a strong showing in the ACC Tournament to improve their NCAA Tournament resume’ for Selection Sunday. They may not quite be a bubble team, but they’re certainly in an unenviable, if not precarious, seeding situation. With a 1-5 record againste Quadrant I teams, a NET ranking of 51 win and blowout losses against Wisconsin and North Carolina, they are a projected No. 10 seed by both BracketMatrix and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. Lunardi puts UofL ahead of only six at-large teams and lists it in the Last Four Byes category

Which Mack insists means nothing to him.

“I don’t necessarily worry about that,” he said. “The only thing we need to really occupy our minds with is being ready to play whoever we face. I think our team’s done a lot. You always want to do more as a coach. We’ve got a young group, we lost Malik (Williams). Obviously those two defeats were enormous when we were coming off two long pauses. I’m just worried about our matchup on Wednesday.”

At least Mack can feel pretty certain that thefe is going to be a matchup, unlike last season when the team’s trip to Greensboro was accompanied by rumors that the tourney was going to be canceled, which it was on the day UofL was to play its first game, against Syracuse.

“There was a lot of speculation if you remember,” Mack recalled. “Then everything happened so quickly. By the time the Carolina-Syracuse game was over and we really started to prepare for Syracuse, the word was out that there weren’t going to be fans allowed and that was sort of difficult to wrap your mind around.

“One or two of our coaches said they’d bet a dollar to a doughnut that we weren’t going to play games, that the tournament was going to be canceled. I remember thinking, ‘Get out of here, no way.’ And that’s exactly what happened, one conference after another. I think the ACC was one of the last tournaments to cancel. Clemson and Florida State were actually on the playing floor.

“So it was just hard to believe and then in the next two or three hours we got word that the NCAA Tournament was canceled and that was really hard to swallow. Yeah, it was a very tough few days. I’m surprised we’re going back to the same hotel to be quite honest.”

Although Mack has won three regular season conference championships during his career — two in the Atlantic 10 and one in the Big East while at Xavier — he has never won a league tournament title. His record in those events, including 2019 UofL, is 10-9.

CARD TRIO ALL-ACADEMIC–Johnson, Williamson and Dre Davis are among 41 ACC men’s basketball players named to the All-ACC Academic team. To be eligible for consideration, a student-athlete must have a 3.0 grade point average for the previous semester and mainatined a 3.0 cumulative average during his academic career.

The men’s team has attained a collective 3.0 GPA for 23 of the last 25 semesters, includibng a 3.1 mark for last semester when 13 of 17 Cards earned a 3.0 or better. Clemson’s Aamir Simms received the Skip Prosser Award presented annually to the top scholar-athlete in the ACC.

JONES HONORED AGAIN–Grad transfer guard Carlik Jones, named this week to the All-ACC First Team, has been selected as the Transfer of the Year by the Bleacher Report. Prior to arriving in Louisville, Jones was an All-Big South Conference performer at Radford. He has averaged 17.0 points and 4.6 assists for the Cards this season.

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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