ACC coaches like Cards chances; Johnson, Williams progressing

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The Atlantic Coast Conference will release the results of its preseason men's basketball poll Thursday, but it doesn't take a crystal ball or a league historian to detect which teams will rule the upper echelon.

The usual suspects -- Virginia, North Carolina, Duke. You name the order. However, there's another team bidding to join that elite trio this time around.

"I'm not willing to give anybody the nod yet," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said during ACC Operation Basketball media day Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C. "But Louisville has as much right to it as anybody with everybody they have back."

Hamilton is referring to a talented roster headed by Jordan Nwora, who is likely to be named the conference preseason player of the year, and Steven Enoch, who may be the best big man in the league. That duo, along with Dwayne Sutton, Ryan McMahon and Malik Williams and Darius Perry, is being joined by a heralded recruiting class.

N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts, a former UofL assistant, is also an admirer of the team Mack has turned into what looks like a sure-fire title contender.

"Louisville will be very good," Keatts said. "I like their group. Chris has done a good job in a short time."

Mike Krzyzewski, the dean of ACC coaches who is one year away from starting his fifth decade in the league, believes there are five teams capable of challenging for the championship and even winning the national title. He didn't name them, but other than the aforementioned quartet, my guess is that NC State, Notre Dame, Florida State and Syracuse will battle for spots in the first division, although none of those teams at this point appear capable of a Final Four run.

"The league is wide open," Krzyzewski said. "It's going to come down to two things -- players staying healthy and how young players develop."

Optimism abounds among Louisville fans, and the Cards are a consensus top-10 pick nationally. Of the four headlining teams, none is more experienced than UofL.

De'Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy left defending national champion Virginia early for the NBA. Duke lost four starters, including three of the Top-10 picks in the NBA draft. North Carolina bid farewell to its top five scorers.

It could be described as a season of transition for the ACC, with lots of new faces. The league had a record-tying 10 players chosen in the first round of the NBA draft. And for the first time in history, no all-ACC first- or second-team players will return. So this season looks like the perfect storm for Louisville.

"We're excited about the year," Mack said at the ACC event. "I think our guys are working their tails off to try to have a memorable season. I want our practices to be ultra-competitive and having 13 scholarship players as opposed to eight or nine healthy scholarship players a year ago has made a world of difference."

In their five seasons in the ACC, the Cards have finished above fourth just once -- in 2017, Rick Pitino's swan song year. Pitino guided UofL to two fourth-place finishes before the Cards dropped to eighth under interim coach David Padget two years ago, then Chris Mack's first group was sixth last season.

ACC teams will play a 20-game schedule for the first time this season and open league play earlier than ever. All the teams will play a conference game during the first week of November, with Louisville's tipoff coming against Miami in the Sunshine State on Nov. 5.

Although Mack referred to his improved depth, the Cards almost certainly won't be a full strength for their opener, with junior center Malik Williams and freshman guard David Johnson both recovering from offseason injuries.

Williams underwent surgery two weeks ago to have a pin inserted into the broken fifth metatarsal in his right foot, while Johnson had surgery in July to repair a torn labrum in his left (non-shooting) shoulder. Williams was predicted to be out six to eight weeks, while the forecast for Johnson was that his injury would sideline the 6-5 Trinity High School product for four to eight months.

Mack said Johnson is "far ahead" of the original timeline and that he expects it to be closer to four.

"He saw a doctor the other day, and the doctor said in six weeks he thinks he can be back on the court playing," Mack said. "That's really good news for us. David has great size at his position. I think his IQ for the game is really terrific and he will help us on both ends of the floor.

"Malik is in a boot, so it's hard to really judge his progress so far. With a six-week recovery, it would be a couple of days before we play Miami and I highly doubt he'll be able to go by then. We want to be very cognizant of making sure we bring him back at the right time."

UofL-CLEMSON KICKOFF SET

Kickoff time for UofL's football game against No. 2 Clemson on Oct. 19 has been set for noon and will be televised on ABC. The Cards (3-2, 1-1) will play No. 19/17 Wake Forest (5-0, 1-0) on the road Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (ACC Network), while the Tigers will put their 20-game winning streak on the line against Florida State (3-2, 2-1) in Death Valley.

Louisville is winless in five games against Clemson since joining the league in 2014, including last year's 77-16 rout. The last time the Tigers visited Cardinal Stadium, they were ranked No. 3 and easily defeated No. 14 UofL again, 47-21, despite Lamar Jackson's 317 passing yards and three touchdowns.

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 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.


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