COMMENTARY

Benching Nwora was a mistake; it's time for Johnson to start

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- What's wrong with Louisville?

If you are a college basketball fan and you haven't heard that question repeated ad naseum the past two days, you need to turn in your hoops hysteria credentials immediately because the Cardinals (21-5) have been a hot topic of conversation - for all negative reasons.


Coach Chris Mack has admitted he doesn't have the answers for UofL's nose-dive this past week in unexpected losses on the road against Georgia Tech, 64-58, and Clemson, 77-62. Neither do I, but I do have some food for thought as the Cards enter what is shaping up to be a make-or-break week with home games against Syracuse and North Carolina.


First, let's start with what me know for sure, and that is the Cards seriously damaged their potential NCAA Tournament seeding by losing to two also-rans who are going nowhere in the postseason except maybe the NIT. They were the first bad losses for UofL, whose other defeats were to ranked teams Duke, Kentucky and Texas Tech. But they were whoppers and the Cards eliminated any chance of staying in contention for a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.


NBCsports.com called Louisville "a total mess," and the Cards were sharply criticized by ACC Network analyst and former Card Luke Hancock, who expressed dismay at their shoddy recent performances.


Now they'll need a strong finish to reclaim a No. 2 or avoid falling even lower. Bracketologist Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com dropped UofL from a No. 2 seed to a No. 4 and Sagarin has the Cards at No. 17 nationally. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi hadn't updated his seedings as of Monday afternoon, with the most recent prediction showing UofL a No. 2.


Somehow, UofL remained ninth in the important NCAA NET rankings, which is somewhat puzzling since Florida State is four spots lower at 13th yet owns a double-digit road win against the Cards and also has a slightly better overall record (21-4). Louisville fell six spots in both polls Monday from fifth to 11th.


A friend who is both a coach and follows the Cards closely believes we should have seen this downturn coming, although maybe not quite to this extent.


His warning signs: Falling behind early against bad teams. Run no offense. Guards getting beat off the dribble against inferior teams. A defense that doesn't create enought turnovers leading to transition baskets, meaning the Cards have to go against a half-court defense too much of the time. Turnovers have been a problem since season opener.


All of those observations have merit. However, an atrocious offense was primarily responsible for the two defeats, although the defense wasn't on task either. UofL shot 33.9 percent (19-56) overall and 12.5% from 3-point range (3-24) against the Yellow Jackets. Against Clemson the Cards shot an unimaginable 15.6 percent (5-32) in the first half and finished at 34.8% (24-69), including 22.2% (6-27) on treys. So for the two games, they were a combined 43-of-125 (.344) and 9-of-51 (.176).


In contrast, during their 10-game winning streak, the Cards were hot from 3-point land, helping them score at least one point per possession in 10 straight games and at least 1.2 points per possession in four of their last five. In the two losses to the Yellow Jackets and Tigers, however, they were down to 0.88 points per possession. All this from a team that entered the Georgia Tech game leading the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage at .387 and was among the best in the country in offensive efficiency


In the early stages of both losses, the Cards had no energy, looked disinterested and wore expressions that certainly didn't communicate the fun aspect of playing they have so often talked about as being one of their staples.


Just as mysterious as Louisville suddenly morphing into the unknowables has been the recent struggles of preseason All-American and leading scorer Jordan Nwora, who has all but disappeared. He has scored only seven points in the two defeats, shooting 2-of-11, including 1-of-9 from distance.


After sitting Nwora out down the stretch at Georgia Tech, Mack benched him for the first 3 1/2 minutes of the Clemson game, starting freshman Samuell Williamson in his place. But it didn't matter as UofL still fell behind, and Nwora wound up playing 29 ineffective minutes, close to his season average of minutes per game (32.8).


No one could disagree that a shakeup was needed, but Mack picked on the wrong player because his decision to bench Nwora can be questioned on several levels. Number one, he's still the team's best scoring threat, and when he's engaged, he's also a good defender and rebounder (second at 7.2). Furthermore, no one in the starting lineup except Dwayne Sutton played well in the losses.


Nwora should have stayed on the court and Mack should have benched Steven Enoch and Fresh Kimble or Darius Perry in favor of Malik Williams and freshman point guard David Johnson. Enoch took only seven shots in the two games, getting seven points and eight rebounds. Perry and Kimble were even worse, combining for a mere 12 points on 4-of-21 (19.0%) shooting and three assists in 71 minutes.


Three assists? It took Johnson only 2 1/2 minutes to collect that many against Clemson, when he sparked an 13-2 run midway through the second half. He had 16 points, five assists and five rebounds at Georgia Tech, then followed with 12 points, eight assists and six rebounds at Clemson. And he totaled only four turnovers.


It's time -- past time actually -- for Mack to quit being stubborn and put Johnson in the starting lineup. Almost every time he steps onto the court good things happen for the Cards. Even though he is still a work in progress on defense, UofL is clearly much more productive with Johnson directing the team, and that's been obvious for quite awhile.


He's Louisville's best playmaker, penetrator and distributor and he can also score from the perimeter. In short, he makes everybody better. Mack has acknowledged as much at times, so why the relutance to turn Johnson loose sooner? He's tried everything else. Maybe UofL's struggles early in games would be minimized or even eliminated.


Mack offered no solution to the Cards' woes immediately after Saturday's game, but to his credit took full responsibility.


“I’m not going to be able to answer a lot of questions about our team,” Mack said. “We’re not playing very well and I own it. Until I can watch the film and have some one-on-one conversations, I see the same thing you do. You don't have to be a basketball savant. It’s a team that started flat, plays uphill or tries to play uphill the rest of the way and the teams we are playing are too together and we’re not right now. It happens sometimes, but it’s my job to keep this team on course."


All indications at this point are that the Cards have ventured far off course. Maybe Mack will have come up with some answers, and a possible solution, by the time of his radio show Monday night or his news conference Tuesday to preview the Syracuse game.

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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