Cards eye a better start, 5th straight win at Wake

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Louisville's surging basketball team owns a four-game winning streak,  shares the lead in the Atlantic Coast Conference and has its highest poll ratings of the season. But when coach Chris Mack looks at the Cardinals' recent performances he sees a disturbing trend that needs to be rectified.


In back-to-back victories over Boston College and Virginia Tech, No. 16/18 UofL (8-1, 3-0) has had to come from behind after getting off to a shaky start and Mack doesn't want to see a repeat of that scenario when the Cards take on Wake Forest (3-3, 0-3) at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday in Winston-Salem, N.C.


"You have to be razor sharp at the start, especially on the road," Mack said.


But in the first few minutes of the last two games the Cards have been dull as a rusty knife, although they've shown admirable resilience by polishing up quickly.


In last Wednesday's 73-71 homecourt win over Virginia Tech, UofL missed its first four shots and committed a turnover while falling behind 11-0 in the first 2 1/2 minutes as the Hokies hit their first four field goal attempts, including a trio of 3-pointers, forcing Mack to call a timeout.


In the game before that, a 76-64 win at Boston College, the Cards got off to an even rougher start, missing five of their first six shots, losing two turnovers and committing three fouls in the first 3:40. Only the Eagles' incompetence prevented their lead from being greater than 10-3.


In both cases, though, the Cards seemed unfazed and went on to build substantial leads, although Virginia Tech caused them some high anxiety by slicing a 14-point deficit to one before missing a potential game-winner at the buzzer.


The Cards retaliated against the Hokies with a 9-0 run, went ahead midway through the first half and never trailed again. And they led BC 37-24 at halftime.


"We've been struggling coming out, but we never really panic," forward J.J. Traynor said Tuesday, "because we're comfortable, trusting each other, trusting the coaches, and everybody just pushes through it."


"I'm not really sure what's going on, but we've got to stop doing that," guard David Johnson said.


Johnson's teammates also expressed puzzlement on why things haven't gone as smoothly as they'd like from the opening tip.


"Slow starts have definitely kind of been somewhat of a problem for us," forward Quinn Slazinski said. "It's not like the attitude is wrong in the locker room before the game. I feel like we all come ready to play. Virginia Tech jumped out 11-0 and we quickly hit them back with a 9-0 run. So it's not about how hard you get hit, it's about not giving up. I'm really proud of how our team responded."


Mack says all bad starts aren't created equal, pointing out that there's a variety of reasons that could be responsible, not all of them entirely the fault of a team that falls behind early.


"That's a little bit of a complex situation because when people think of good starts, bad starts, they just assume the score," he said. "Obviously, that's the part that matters, I get that. But what caused the score? Is it your lack of communication? Is it something you've gone over multiple days in a row in practice that our guys should be able to execute? Is it lazy passes? What is leading to it?


"That's what I'm more concerned about -- why aren't we starting strong? Everybody wants to get out to a lead, but that's not always going to be the case. Sometimes it's tough shots the other team is hitting (even though) you're doing everything you feel like is necessary to win the game -- the guys are playing hard but things just aren't bouncing your way.


"I just want to make sure our team on the game floor looks the exact same as our team on the practice floor with our communication, our readiness, our understanding what's happening at either end of the floor. And usually it helps when you have a veteran team, so we've had to learn some things the hard way. I don't know how you work on that other than to just continue to address those habits."


Louisville goes into the Wake game tied with Virginia and Duke for the league lead and needing to take advantage of the lightest portion of its ACC schedule by sweeping the Demon Deacons and Miami (5-5, 1-4) on the road Saturday. Because after this week, it gets tougher, with 10 games against teams that are either in the top six in the league standings now or were projected to finish that high in the preseason poll. Going the start of a three-game homestand Monday against Florida State, it's probable that the Cards will have beaten just one team (Va. Tech) that has a winning ACC record.


"It's definitely great being 3-0, but the ACC is a brutal schedule, so we've got to stay with it," Slazinski said. "We've got a lot of young guys, but we're talented and a lot of us understand the game, so we'll be ready for Wake Forest."


The Deacs' three ACC losses have come against Georgia Tech (70-64), Virginia (70-61) and Duke (79-68). They are second in the league in field goal percentage at .478, but are 14th in assists/turnover ratio (0.83) and, with no dominating big man, have struggled on the boards.


The visit to Wake will be a trip down memory lane for Mack and assistant coach Dino Gaudio. Mack was an assistant for three seasons under the late Skip Prosser, while Guadio worked there nine years (2001-10), the last three as head coach.


"It's like going to visit your childhood home, so to speak," Mack said. "It's always special going back to a place where I've spent some quality years yesteryear."


MACK NOT A POLL-WATCHER


Louisville made a big move in the polls this week, jumping from the also receiving votes category to No. 16 in the AP rankings and from 25th to 18th in the Coaches poll. However, like most of his counterparts, don't expect Mack to get excited about the recognition.


"I don't really care about the rankings," he said. "I don't even think about how much we jump. I don't even know where we were ranked last week, or if we were even ranked. Next Monday we'll have three more games under our belt and we'll know a lot more about our team. That's not to say we'll have arrived, or not arrived. It's a long process. I think the ranking is great for recruiting, your name's on the bottom line. But it incentivizes the team you play and it can not entitle the team we are. So that's how I feel about the rankings."

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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