LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Going into their game in the KFC Yum! Center Saturday afternoon (4 o'clock, ESPN), Louisville (9-3, 4-2 ACC) and Duke (5-4, 3-2) are two eerily similar teams in comparable circumstances, with each trying to steady the ship, halt their recent decline and keep from falling further behind league-leading Virginia (5-0).
UofL has dropped consecutive games to Miami (78-72) and Florida State (78-65), while Duke is coming off back-to-back road losses against No. 20 Virginia Tech (74-67) and Pittburgh (79-73).
Given their parallel paths, Louisville coach Chris Mack and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski sound like twin sons of different mothers. Both complain about their respective team's slow starts, lack of toughness and youth that is requiring an ongoing search for an identity. So both are desperate ror a win and struggling to find a way to fix their woes before the season slips away.
"I'm still learning about this team," Mack said. "I hate using the word young because nobody really cares. The inconsistency can frustrate a coach, but we're gonna get there. We'll get better."
The Blue Devils are even more inexperienced than the Cards, with Krzyzewski leaning on a rotation of five freshmen, a sophomore and one senior.
"We're still finding out about our team," coach K said. "You don't get better without experience. They've got to get tougher. This is such a young team, as young as we've had for a long time. We can't afford to be down, we have to respond."
UofL's most pressing issues at the moment are getting off to a better start than they have in their last two losses and improving their perimeter shooting. The Cards never led Miami after the first four minutes and fell behind 25-12. They weren't even competitive for most of the FSU game, digging a 40-16 hole. In a 73-71 win over Virginia Tech earlier this month, the Hokies zipped ahead 11-0.
"That's our huge downfall right now is being ready to play and having better starts to games," point guard Carlik Jones said. "We've talked about it a lot; during our wins AND our losses, we've had slow starts, people getting ahead of us, and we need to stop putting ourselves in that situation."
"We've been trying to figure that out the past 2-3 weeks," sophomore guard David Johnson said. "We've got to stop starting out like that. We've got to find our identity, we don't even know who we are right now. We haven't been Louisville basketball in last couple of games. We've got to get back on the right track."
As for their shooting, UofL is a miserable 7-of-36 (19.4%) from beyond the arc in the last two games, but Mack insists there's nothing wrong with his players' shot selection. On the season the Cards are shooting .323, 13th in the ACC.
"I think if you would watch the tape after a game, we take pretty good shots," he said. "It's not like we're firing with guys in our faces. I've talked a little bit before about the context of our shot: have we already taken a couple quick threes that didn't work out the right way or maybe we turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions.
"If that's the case, then we have to try to work the clock a little bit more, try to break the defense down, get a couple of ball reversals and try to really earn a good shot. Not to say we don't want to try and earn a good shot every time down the floor, but I would say it's context issues more than it is bad shot selection."
Overall, Mack said during a Zoom conference with the media Friday afternoon that he wants to see more effort, energy, toughness, consistency and urgency from his players from start to finish.
"We've talked about it a lot. This isn't just a conversation we've had for the last two days," he said. "The biggest thing is being able to execute those details throughout the entire 40 minutes. We have to, at some point, figure out how to start that. Just do.
"Having said that, if we get off to a start where we're down 10-2, we still have to figure it out just like what happened against Virginia Tech. Doesn't mean the game is over by any means, it's a long game. But it would certainly be nice to get off to a much better start than we have these last two games."
Although Duke is young, it certainly doesn't have a shortage of raw talent, with its usual loaded roster of highly rated recruits. One of those rookies, 6-9 Jalen Johnson, played his most significant minutes Tuesday against Pitt since returning from a foot injury and became the only Blue Devil all-time with a 20 points-15 rebounds-seven assists-four blocks stats line.
Krzyzewski has deployed seven starting lineups in nine games, with only 6-9 sophomore Matthew Hurt starting every game. He is second in the ACC in scoring at 18.9 points per game, third in rebounding (8.2) and seventh in field goal percentage (.516). However, he is considered questionable for UofL after turning his ankle at Pitt. The lone senior contributor is 6-2 Jordan Goldwire, who leads the ACC in steals (2.6) and is third in assist/turnover ratio at +2.4.
"Duke is very, very talented and they're a a different team with Jalen Johnson being back, which is very evident," Mack said. "They're learning, a lot like us. They've got a collection of really good players and they're improving just like we hope to."
Sophomore forward Quinn Slazinksi, who showed up for the Zoom meeting with a black eye he sustained in a collision with a Miami player's knee during a scramble for a loose ball, thinks it's time for the Cards to show some maturity beyond their ages.
"Starting out, we really didn't know what it takes," he said. "There's no off games in the ACC. I mean, every night is a big-time matchup with big-time players and we've learned that the hard way. But it's time to flip the page. We have a historic coach coming into our building tomorrow and it's time to go take care of Duke."
The last two Duke-Louisville games have been classics in a different way. The last time the Blue Devils came to town, they trailed the Cards by 23 points with nine minutes to go before a furious rally enabled them to pull out a 71-69 victory. Last year it was UofL's turn to script an unexpected ending. With Johnson having a breakout game, the No. 11 Cards upset the No. 3 Devils 79-73 in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Johnson had 19 points, seven assists and three steals.
A win over Louisville would enhance a paper-thin resume' for Duke. The Devils' ACC wins have come against Boston College, Nore Dame and Wake Forest, whose combined league record is 2-17. Their other two wins are against Coppin State and Bellarmine.
If UofL wins it will be historical from Duke's standpoint because the Blue Devils have had only one three-game losing streak in the past 13 seasons -- in 2016 when they lost to Clemson by five points, Notre Dame by four and Syracuse by two. Duke is unranked for the first time since 2016.
UofL SETS PRE-GAME SHOW
UofL will offer a live-streamed, half-hour pregame television show at 3:30 from the Yum! It will be streamed on the UofL Men’s Basketball Twitter account @LouisvilleMBB (https://twitter.com/LouisvilleMBB), the men’s basketball Facebook page @LouisvilleMBB (https://www.facebook.com/LouisvilleMBB/) and on Louisville Cardinals YouTube GoCards page (https://www.youtube.com/GoCards).
The program will feature interviews with former Cardinals Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton and Ryan McMahon; additional stories with sophomore guard David Johnson and new arena public address announcer Lance McGarvey. It will also take a look back at the Cardinals’ 2020 victory at Duke; plus season highlights and comments from Mack.
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 email@example.com.