Malik Williams quietly efficient, Louisville downs Notre Dame

Christen Cunningham wrapping up his one and only season but always a Cardinal with 14 points on Senior Day (Cindy Rice Shelton photos).
Malik Williams bringing his game on defense against Notre Dame’s John Mooney. Turning in his best game of the year with his third double-double (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Malik Williams has had more than his share of criticism  of a perceived lack of quality at the center position. An issue taking a toll on the fortunes of  University of Louisville basketball.

There was little for anyone to find fault with Williams’ performance in UofL’s 75-61 win over Notre Dame on Sunday. None of those questionable shots, none of those awkward turnovers, no reason to throw up one hands in frustration.

Pretty much going unnoticed while turning in what may have been the best game of the 6-foot-11 sophomore’s career. Playing within the system, turning in his third double-double of the season, contributing 16 points and 13 rebounds.  

V. J. King with an encouraging performance, with 10 rebounds, 6 points and 2 assists (Cindy Rice Stephens photo).

Connecting on six out of seven field goal attempts, none of them flirting with NBA-type distances behind the 3-point arc. Making all of his free throws, four of four from the foul line, thank you.

Letting the game come to him while enabling Jordan Nwora and Christen Cunningham to do their things. Nwora with his own double-double of 20 points and 11 rebounds, and Cunningham with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists.

Also showing welcome signs of progress was V. J. King. The 6-foot-6 junior bringing it on defense and contributing a career-best 10 rebounds to go with six points and two assists. No turnovers either in a performance that had to be personally encouraging for him. Not to be overlooked was Darius Perry with nary a turnover to go with seven points and two rebounds.

Not one of those epic UofL-Notre Dame games, often resulting in multiple overtimes. Not a great Irish team to be honest. But a good game for the Cardinals, something to build on for a change.

Nice to be back in the win column, support players being supportive, making noticeable differences, playing their roles.

Senior Day images from Cindy Rice Shelton.

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Nwora overcomes mini-meltdown, Louisville survives Clemson

Clinging to a one-point lead with 2.46 seconds on the clock, needing only to get the ball in for the win. So little time but too much left to ever take anything for granted with this team.

Christen Cunningham back to his winning ways after the breakdown against Duke (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Still another worst way to lose a game looming. Large.

Five turnovers already. A vision of ruination, Jordan Nwora with the ball under the Clemson basket, needing only to throw a full court pass to somebody. 

But there he is, searching, seemingly lost, throwing the ball into a crowd below the basket. A bounce pass directly into the hands of Clemson’s Marcquise Reed … in the best possible position to score. 

Close eyes, open eyes.

That’s Nwora blocking the shot and Louisville winning the game 56-55 before a crowd of 16,000-plus at the KFC Yum! Center, improving the record to 18-8. A hangover game of almost epic proportions, following a 23-point implosion four days ago.

Could just as easily have been a third straight loss had it not be for Nwora.  It was his second block but coming on a day when he had six turnovers and missed all five of his three-point attempts (he did make 11 points).

Meanwhile, Christen Cunningham was back in his leadership mode, handing out five assists, making three steals and two turnovers and connecting on six of 11 field goal attempts. That included four of five three-point attempts and a team-leading 18 points. 

The Cardinals were again severely tested with hanging onto the ball at crunch time, with three of their 12 turnovers coming with less than 25 seconds in the game. The good news is they know their weaknesses, the bad is the fumble-itis with games on the line.

Restoring Louisville basketball not expected to be easy for Chris Mack

Lots of ups and downs for Louisville basketball during the first season under Coach Chris Mack (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

The challenges confronting Chris Mack faces in returning University of Louisville to the elite ranks of college basketball were never more obvious than in the 89-86 loss to Pittsburgh. Those easy wins UofL fans were expecting in January are suddenly doubtful and elusive.

If 2018-19 was supposed to be a rebuilding season under the new Louisville coach, he is still frantically searching for the building blocks for the foundation. Though they never quit in Wednesday’s game, the Cardinals never really got started. Strongly resembling last year’s team,  struggling against an Atlantic Coast Conference bottom feeder.

Certainly not a good night for Jordan Nwora, the team’s leading scorer.  He appeared to be least likely player getting the ball with the game on the line. A poor shooting night, making only two of 14 field goal attempts, while making four turnovers. Many of his shots didn’t have a chance, some of them seemingly thrown at random.

Point guard Christen Cunningham again forced to provide the offensive leadership, recognizing what needed to be done. Fearless in going to the basket, taking the sensible shots, finding open teammates. He would score a team-high 23 points and make five assists, all without committing a single foul.

Cunningham actually contributing what his team needed most, a sense of urgency. Playing within the system, on a night when some of his teammates appeared unsure of their roles and how they fit within the system. Whether they can get it, recommit and get their collective act together, or if they are capable of getting better, remains to be seen.

If they are not paying attention to their new coach, if they unable to grasp what he wants them to do, or if there is just not enough talent to overcome these disparities, this season could easily become a placeholder until Chris Mack’s first recruiting class takes over next year.

Louisville seems content to hang around against Kentucky

A game Dwayne Sutton wants to forget, Louisville’s third leading scorer managing only two points for the day (Cindy Rice Shelton photos).

May be a while before University of Louisville basketball plays another Kentucky team so lacking in talent as was so evident on Saturday. But that’s irrelevant because UofL never posed a serious threat to the Wildcats.

Chris Mack gave his team a chance against Kentucky but was outmanned in his first game in the rivalry (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Choose a reason — lack of focus, no consistency, little confidence, an absence of leadership, no visible will to win — any of these qualities were in evidence in a 71-58 loss to Kentucky. No perceived benefit either from the boisterous UofL diehards in the crowd of 20,882 at the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday.

A UofL team able to connect on only  five of 20 three-point field goal attempts. Not much better on close-up attempts, unable to finish, blowing uncontested shots at times. Seemingly content to just hang around, spotting UK 10-point-plus leads,  lacking the ability to hit two or three shots in a row.

The crowd of 20,882 was the largest at the KFC Yum! Center this season.

Credit Coach Chris Mack for keeping his team as close as it was, avoiding a second straight blowout to Kentucky. The offensive schemes were good, the 1-3-1 zone offense could have been effective. But not without booster shots of mental toughness and consistent focus.

If there was a bright spot, it was the play of Christen Cunningham, who almost singlehandedly kept UofL within striking distance in the first half. The 6-foot-2 graduate transfer from Samford University had three of Louisville’s five 3-point shots and a team-leading 20 points.

Jordan Nwora, the team’s leading scorer, accumulated 17 points but teammates Dwayne Sutton and Darius Perry managed only seven points between them. Sutton never took a shot during the first 20 minutes. Ryan McMahon couldn’t possibly get open, winding with two free throws.

Not a blowout at least, but not all that encouraging. Not with UofL hosting Miami next Sunday in the first game of a grueling ACC schedule. 

An early wakeup call, a reminder for Louisville fans to keep expectations in check for the rest of the season. Chris Mack’s work has only just begun.

Slideshow courtesy of Cindy Rice Shelton.

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