Not possible, no way, no how, but Louisville throttles North Carolina

Cindy Rice Shelton photo

Never. Be real.

The last thing anyone expected, especially among longtime diehard University of Louisville basketball fans. Go ahead and pencil in another L, no way to avoid getting mopped off the floor at Chapel Hill. A certain North Carolina runaway.

No rush switching on the TV, no hurry to see a blowout, tuning in less than a minute to tipoff. Afraid to watch, knowing no lead is safe, expecting the worst. No chance in hell. Bring it on, getting used to the bad news.

Except that the worst wasn’t to be. Not this day.

Two hours after comparing this group to a friend at Kroger with a bunch of YMCA basketball junkies, telling him not to get his hopes up. This Louisville team had wrapped up an 83-62 win over North Carolina before 21,000-plus fans on their home court, the 21-point loss the largest ever for UNC under Coach Roy Williams.

Two hours after comparing this group to a friend at Kroger with a bunch of YMCA basketball junkies, telling him not to get his hopes up.

Exactly what UofL fans needed, those expecting a long, long season, losing faith, having resigned themselves to the worst. A win at the least expected moment, over one of college basketball’s blue bloods, a giant booster shot three games into the heart of the ACC schedule.

Think maybe Coach Chris Mack’s message about keeping players in front of them and out of the lane finally reached its audience? One kept expecting that perpetual flurry of UNC fast break layups, alley oops and back door slams. But they never came. Rarely has a North Carolina team thrown up so many bricks.

Jordan Nwora bringing his game face, with a different look, ready to rumble, no hint of ambivalence. Steven Enoch tired of riding the bench, bringing a different game, one that some had given up ever seeing, probably  his best ever. Dwayne Sutton again bringing that warrior mentality, fearless and aggressive.

The three of them sharing team-high scoring honors with 17 points apiece. Sutton with an amazing seven assists, Christen Cunningham with five assists. Only five turnovers during the game, compared to 14 for North Carolina. Out-rebounding the Tar Heels, 40-31. An unlikely 11 rebounds from Enoch, 10 rebounds for Sutton — first time double-doubles for each.

The most impressive performance by a Louisville basketball team in quite a while, coming on the heels of an ugly loss to Pittsburgh. The players maybe ready to listen. Mack with the same old message, keep the ball in front of you, keep them out of the lane. “When you do that, they will have a tough time scoring against you,” said Mack.

Keep that in mind, guys, and there could well be many more good times ahead this season.

Jock Sutherland recalls fun times with Louisville basketball

Photo courtesy Room 17 Productions

Jock Sutherland hasn’t seen a University of Louisville basketball game in person since 2001. That’s a long time for a man who was immersed in the sport for most of his 90 years. But he’s still very much a UofL basketball fan, describing his time with the program as “one of my bonuses in life.”

Since he can’t play golf or travel for basketball games, he relies heavily on his big screen TV to follow the sports he loves. “Being 90 isn’t easy, you have to learn things all over again,” he said. “I see as many Louisville games as I can although it is sometimes a challenge finding UofL games in Central Kentucky.”

Jock Sutherland during his days at Lafayette High School in Lexington where he won a state basketball championship in 1979.

Sutherland was a member of the UofL basketball radio broadcast team from 1981 to 2001. He raised the concept of color commentator to another level, entertaining fans with a zany sense of humor, unrelenting candor and folksy stories. A former member of the University of Kentucky coaching staff, he was often critical of UK on the broadcasts.

The Observer caught up with Jock by telephone on Monday at his Nicholasville home that he shares with his wife Phyllis, adjacent to the Lone Oak Golf Course. He played golf regularly until about five years ago, often participating in UofL golf scrambles,  before being sidelined with arthritis in both knees.

Jock Sutherland with his son Charles, Jr., at the annual Press Box Golf Scramble at the UofL Golf Club in 2014 (Charlie Springer photo).

Sutherland, who coached Lafayette to the state high school championship in 1979, got his start in media a year later as an analyst with Dave Conrad at UofL games on WHAS TV. “We didn’t have replays in those days, and it was tough explaining the technical stuff,” he recalls.

When Conrad left for another job, Van Vance asked Jock to join the Louisville broadcast team.  “I had the worst voice in the world and I didn’t know anything about radio,” he said. “I was so bad we made a pretty good team. He just wanted me to talk so I talked. It was wonderful. I had a great time and got to know a lot of Louisville people. I wouldn’t take anything for that experience.”

Van Vance hired Jock Sutherland in 1981 to do color commentary for UofL basketball (WHAS Radio photo).

Sutherland and Vance have stayed in contact over the years, getting together at the Cracker Barrel in Lawrenceburg to rehash memories. “Van was a great guy to work with and quite a character,” he said. “He was the ultimate bachelor, with some quirky habits. He would eat supper at weird hours, nothing for him to go to Kroger at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Jock, who retired from broadcasting the same year when Coach Denny Crum left the program, was obviously disappointed with some of the off-the-court activities affecting Louisville basketball in recent years. “The dorm activity never would have happened with Denny,” he said. “There was no way, we had too many people on campus. We had a coach there (in the dorm) every night.  I don’t think Rick Pitino had any idea what was going on.

“That one assistant caused all the problems, and it has cost him dearly. It has cost UofL dearly, too. It’s a shame but the school, the program will recover and come back better than ever.”

Sutherland isn’t fond of some of the changes in basketball over the last few decades. “I have never liked the three-point shot or all the dunking in today’s game,” he said. “I especially don’t like the one-and-done stuff at UK. Fans don’t get to know the players and the players aren’t learning much about the game.”

He says there will never be another Denny Crum and the place will never be the same as when Crum was there. “Denny was a special person. I never heard Denny say a curse word in 20 years. I never saw him embarrass a player in 20 years. Denny never said a word if I was critical during a game.”

He is optimistic about the future of UofL basketball, predicting great things under Chris Mack’s leadership. “They’re coming back, they’ll definitely be back,” he said. “We’ve got a guy here now who has a good reputation and he’s a great recruiter. I guarantee you that in about three years, UofL will back to where it was, competing at the highest levels.”

Sutherland was constantly choking up during the interview, obviously still proud to have worked with the Louisville basketball program, still wondering at times how it was possible.

“I had the worst voice in the world but I did know my subject.  When they bury me, I will take some wonderful memories with me.”

*    *    *

Jock was recently interviewed by film producers Renee Collins and Warren Cobb for Room 17 Productions as part of a documentary about one his former players, Greg Austin. A phenomenal athlete in basketball, football and track, Austin played for Jock’s 1967 team and earned fame as a country music singer. In the interview Jock also reveals how he earned the nickname. 

The Greg Austin Story: Charles “Jock” Sutherland from Renee Collins on Vimeo.

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.

Louisville basketball looking to close out year on high notes

Jordan Nwora dunking again and again, scoring 22 points in 82-78 win over Lipscomb on Wednesday (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

As expected, some early ups and downs for the University of Louisville basketball team during the first season under Coach Chris Mack. Some good wins, some unexpected challenges in compiling a 7-3 won-lost record. UofL will get better with four straight games at home, but tournament expectations remain guarded.
 
The Cardinals opened the season at plus-10,000 to end up as national champions in 2019 at online betting sites like BetOnline. Since then, they have moved up the ranks at a few spots to as low as plus-7,000.
 
Louisville isn’t currently in the top 25 in either the Associated Press poll or the Coaches Poll, but TeamRankings predictive power ratings has the Cards at No. 26. They’ve had a pretty tough schedule over the last few games, with wins over Michigan State and Seton Hall and tough losses against Marquette and Indiana.
 
The Cardinals have the No. 38 offense in college basketball, putting up over 89 points per game. The defense isn’t bad at 69.62 allowed on average, but if they want to climb into the top 20 they are going to have to tighten up on the defensive side. Ranking 117th in total defense isn’t going to cut it.
UK rivalry game looms

Now Louisville moves into a four-game home stretch, getting Kent State, Robert Morris, Kentucky, and then Miami (Fla).  Kent State is rated as the No. 143 team but over the last nine games has trended down to look more like No. 150. Robert Morris is first in the Northeast at 4-6 and is essentially a tune-up game.  
 
The team will get a full week off for Christmas before facing a tough, 20th ranked Kentucky Wildcats. This game could go either way.

Points per game – UK 84.2 vs. UofL81.7
Allowed per game- UK 71.3 vs. UofL 69.4
Average margin – UK +12.9 vs. UofL +12.2
Away vs Home Rating – UK #10 vs. UofL #10
Opponent FG % – UK 50.2 vs. UofL 47.6
 
The Miami Hurricanes have to face NC State two days before they come to Louisville, so the Cardinals have the advantage of another long rest period between their games with Kentucky and the Canes. The Cardinals will win at least four out of five as we head into the new year.
 

Chris Mack breathing life back into Louisville basketball

Cindy Rice Shelton photo

Turn that corner. 

Biggest win of Coach Chris Mack’s tenure at the University of Louisville, his team emerging from a bruising slugfest with Michigan State. Too soon to declare that UofL is back from the wilderness, but never too early to celebrate a signature victory.

One of those cliche wins for a young team, one of those games this first year coach’s team wasn’t expected to survive. A night when Louisville could have folded often in regulation or overtime, but hanging on for a an 82-78 win over the nation’s ninth-ranked team.

A special night, a special win for the Cardinals in front of a screaming crowd of 15,477 rabid partisans at the KFC Yum! Center. Everyone knowing this one was special, possibly the lynchpin for a return to the good times for Louisville basketball.

All of UofL’s last seven points coming at the free throw line, four of them from Ryan McMahon, two from Chris Cunningham, and the final one from Jordan Nwora, with the final free throw, giving the Cardinals’ their final margin.

Ryan McMahon with a career high 24 points, including four free throws in overtime. (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

McMahon admitting after the game he was dreading Murphy’s Law, fearing that if something bad could happen, it was going to happen. “The difference may have been the little things, the kind of things we sometimes take for granted,” he said afterwards.

McMahon mentioned Dwayne Sutton as a difference maker, saying Sutton was telling his teammates on the sideline not to let up, not to let a win slip out of their grasp. “He told us we can’t let this happen again,” he said.

McMahon among numerous players having the game of their careers. The junior guard leading all scorers with 24 points, including four of eight field goal attempts, all of them 3-pointers, and 12 or 13 free throw attempts.Jordan Nwora with 14 points, including two 3-pointers, six of nine free throw attempts. Dwayne Sutton and Chris Cunningham with 13 points each.

Responding to Chris Mack’s with that hand over his heart, the Cardinals wanting this one badly. Needing this win, overcoming any of their own doubts, doing what it takes, not being denied, making it happen.

Breathing life back into Louisville basketball, a dose of adrenalin into the UofL faithful. A major corner indeed.