Cards at a crossroads, tip off 'huge' week with Syracuse

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- One of the quotes Yogi Berra was famously credited with was this gem: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."


Louisville's basketball team has come to a fork and the next two games will go a long way toward determining what path the No. 11 Cardinals wind up on for the remainder of the season. Will they remain a contender for the ACC championship, or will they be exposed as a pretender?


The next four days could tell the story for UofL (21-5), beginning with a visit to the KFC Yum! Center by dangerous Syracuse (14-11, 7-7) at 7 o'clock Wednesday night on ESPN. Cellar-dweller North Carolina (it still sounds weird to write that) will follow the Orange into the Yum! on Saturday and the Cards need to win both those games before heading to Tallahassee for a showdown Monday night with No. 8 Florida State, which is unbeaten on its homecourt.


Louisville, reeling from back-to-back losses and terrible performances against Georgia Tech and Clemson last week, is 12-3 in the ACC and in second place, a game behind Duke (12-20) and a half-game ahead of the Seminoles (11-3).


How big are these two games for the Cards? We asked someone who should know -- Luke Hancock, the 2013 Final Four Most Outstanding Player for Louisville's 2013 national championship team who is now an analyst for the ACC Network and will be part of a broadcast crew for pre-game and post-game shows on ACCN Wednesday.


"Huge," said Hancock said. "You definitely want to see Jordan (Nwora) take a step in the right direction after two rough ones. But you're playing now with five games left to work on your seeds for the ACC and NCAA tournaments. This portion of your season is about over and you've got to be playing your best basketball going into post-season play. I think it's really important for them to get off on the right foot winning these two home games.


"This is a Rick Pitino thing that applies to all major teams -- you've got to take care of business at home and try to steal as many games as you can on the road, especially against the top teams. But you have to first and foremost handle business at home. Syracuse is a good basketball team too. This is gonna be a battle."


Hancock said he was as surprised as everyone else about UofL's clunkers in Atlanta and Clemson and that the Cards now have some work to do to rebuild their reputation and resume'.


"I don't know how you couldn't be surprised," he said. "Before the Georgia Tech game I think everybody, especially around here, was all in with this team. I still think they're really good, but my job is to call it like it is and they have not looked like a championship caliber team in the last week."


However, Hancock pointed out that the '13 title team lost three straight in January -- to Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown -- but then won 19 of its next 20, losing only to Notre Dame in a five-overtime thriller in South Bend, Ind., on the way to the championship.


"We felt all the things these guys are feeling now," Hancock said. "Teams go through that. Through their 10-game winning streak and through much of this season, I felt like Louisville was a pretty good basketball team, but at the same time they were a play away or a shot away from things being either a lot worse or a lot better."


If UofL hasn't looked like a potential ACC champ lately, Nwora hasn't looked the part of a preseason All-American either. He scored only seven points in the two losses, hitting just 2-of-11 shots while slipping out of the league scoring lead. Syracuse's Elijah Hughes, a 6-6 junior forward, is now the leader with an 18.9 average to Nwora's 18.2.


UofL coach Chris Mack benched Nwora for the start of the Clemson game. He was non-committal Tuesday about whether the 6-8 junior forward will return to the starting lineup or if there will be other lineup changes. But he reiterated that he wants Nwora to contribute in other ways if his shot isn't falling.


"Jordan's got to fall in love with figuring out ways to help us win, not just scoring," Mack said. "He has to do some things for our team, regardless of whether he's shooting the ball well or not. He wasn't doing those things and I just felt like it was the right thing at the right time for our team. He didn't play well, he knows that and I think he's in a good place right now."


Mack said he has seen a good response from his players in a "phenomenal" practice Monday, explaining, "I thought our guys came out with a lot of energy, really locked in. There's a 'want' to get back to playing better. I don't sense in any way, shape or form that our guys are splintering or dejected."


And senior forward Dwayne Sutton described the Cards' mood as "pretty upbeat."


If clearing-the-air meetings can lead to victories, then UofL should be a shoo-in against Syracuse. Mack met with team captains Sutton, Ryan McMahon and Malik Williams Sunday. Then the captains called a players-only meeting. Then Mack met with the entire team Sunday night.


"Our teams feels that urgency," Mack said. "I don't think they would have called a meeting on their own if they didn't feel some type of urgency or consternation about the way we're playing. I think that's very evident."


Sutton said Williams, who has always been the most vocal player on the team, did most of the talking during the players' only session.


"Malik was the guy letting us know one through 16 that it's going to take a collective effort to do their part to get this thing back to where we want it to go," Sutton said. "Being an older team, I feel like we haven't panicked. Me, Fresh (Kimble), Malik, Jordan, Darius (Perry), Ryan have all been playing college basketball a long time and we just want to get back to what we do and get some wins. We talked about what it's gonna take to get back to our winning ways."


Meanwhile, Syracuse is trying to fight its way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble, but the Orange have lost three of their last four games, including a near-miss, 80-77, at Florida State Saturday. In addition to Hughes, four other Syracuse starters are averaging in double figures and the Orange have three players who are long-range threats, having made a total of 203 trifectas.


Buddy Boeheim (6-6), son of Hall of Fame head coach Jim Boeheim, ranks third nationally with 3.36 3-point field goals per game and is shooting 39.1 percent from distance while averaging 15.6 ppg. Hughes is shooting .352 and freshman guard Joseph Girard III, who scored over 4,000 points in high school, is at .324.


"Girard's range is literally over half-court by a step or two," Mack said. "All three of those guys can shoot and they have a lot of freedom. You're going to see some 30-footers go up."


Syracuse's calling card, of course, is its 2-3 zone, which Boeheim's teams have played exclusively during his 44 seasons. Last year in the Carrier Dome, the Orange held the Cards to their lowest score and lowest shooting percentages of the season -- .259 overall and .214 from 3-point land (6-28) in a 69-49 loss. Not a good sign for a team that has made only 9 of 51 treys (17.6%) in its last two games.


During filming of a promotional video for a charity event recently, former UofL coach Denny Crum told Mack he had a play that he guaranteed would work against Syracuse's zone and diagrammed it for him.


"He must have seen our game against them last year," Mack quipped. But he didn't reveal whether he would use Crum's suggestion.

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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