LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - It's a game people can't quit talking about, and you can put Louisville basketball coach Chris Mack in that category.
And Friday afternoon, answering so many questions about the Cardinals' gut-wrenching 71-69 loss to Duke that it was easy to forget the reason for the press conference was to preview Saturday's game against Clemson, Mack did something you didn't hear from his predecessor in 17 years.
He actually took responsibilty for a defeat, if not totally absolving his players of blame, at least not criticizing them. Media members who cover the Cardinals couldn’t recall an instance when Rick Pitino shouldered any of the blame for a defeat. (Or three scandals, either, but that's another story).
Mack also revealed that he had apologized to his players for not having them better prepared when the Blue Devils sprung a surprise 2-2-1 zone press and an extended 2-3 zone that ultimately wiped out leads of 23 points with 10 minutes remaining and 19 points at the 6:40 mark.
"The first thing I'd tell you is my job is to take full ownership of how our team played in the last 10 minutes. . .the last really, 6 1/2 minutes. And as hard as that was to swallow, our team lost confidence in the moment and my teams generally haven't been that way, but it's my job to figure out why.
" I think confidence comes from preparation, having been in those situations before, whether it's zone press, whether it's a zone, whatever it is, being in those moments before and recognizing how to get yourself out of it. We didn't prepare for some of the things that Duke brought to the fight in the last six minutes because they had never shown it on tape, and I beat myself up for that. What they had shown on tape the entire year we dismantled for 34 minutes.
"So it was tough to swallow because everything they had shown on tape they didn't have one answer for when we played them. Now, what they didn't show on tape I didn't have an answer for our guys. A big part of having confidence in that moment, and that's where I told our team I failed them as a coach. But I'll be better the next time and they'll be better the next time."
Mack said he had watched the game, including Duke's furious rally or Louisville's collapse, depending on your perspective, "numerous times."
"That first 30 minutes or so was as well as we've played all year, but you've got to do it for 40 minutes," he added. "It's funny because you hear other people say it's the worst 30 minutes Duke has ever played, so I really don't know what's reality."
But Mack elected not to show the team the video of their painful meltdown.
"It was replayed a thousand times, so for us to go play by play and inflict more hurt to our guys. . .that was a decision I made as a coach," he explained. "I just felt there were some other important things to talk about, not necessarily show them on tape."
Instead, Mack used some of his personal experiences as a player and coach to impart some life lessons and illustrate the value of having to overcome adversity. Such as his three ACL operations, his No. 2-seeded Xavier team's upset loss to Wisconsin in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, and the top-seeded Musketeers' loss to No. 9 Florida State in the NCAAs, also in the second round.
Also overcoming a four-point deficit with 20 seconds remaining to edge Arizona 73-71 in the 2017 Sweet Sixteen, a feat and a tournament run to the Elite Eight as an underdog that he attributed to hard lessons learned during a six-game losing skid at the end of the season.
"In life, sometimes people only want to talk about who wins championships and all that stuff, but I think a lot of times those people are made through setbacks," Mack said. "That's what I tried to explain after the game. If you're going to be at this level you're going to have some really, really tough moments, and I think those moments can really define you individually and define our team. I really believe that champions and people are made through the tough setbacks they've experienced in their life."
The Cards (17-8, 8-4 ACC) returned to practice Thursday and Mack said they responded "great." As for him: "Resilient. I'm good."
While he is active on his Twitter account, Mack said he hasn't paid much attention to comments on social media about the game.
"I'm weird," he said. "That stuff does not bother me. I mean, it might bother me right when they say it, but so many people say stuff now, it's just noise. Like really?"
Speaking from a player's point of view, point guard Christen Cunningham said he's confident UofL will bounce back against Clemson (15-9, 5-6) in the noon game in the KFC Yum! Center just as they have done on several other occasions this year.
"We've just been staying with our team and the coaching staff, keeping in a tight circle and staying together," Cunningham said. "It was a big game, a great opportunity to beat Duke, but it was just going to count for one conference win, just like it will if we beat Clemson. Guys are angry about dropping two games.
"But we're going to learn from it and fix it, just like early in the season when we couldn't guard the ball, we fixed that problem. That's just what a season does. You have different challenges. This is the one that's on our plate right now."
Clemson is four-tenths of a second away from coming to town with a five-game winning streak. That's how much time was left when Zach Johnson hit a buzzer-beater to give host Miami a 65-64 win Wednesday night. However, Clemson's four-game spree needs a disclaimer since three of the victories came against the bottom four teams in the conference, with a combined record of 7-28. The other win was at home against Virginia Tech, 59-51.
The Tigers are second in the ACC in scoring defense at 61.9 ppg. Offensively, they're led by 6-3 guard Marcquise Reed, who is averaging 18.9 ppg. and scored 24 in Clemson's 74-69 overtime win over UofL last year. Five Tigers have hit 20 or more 3-pointers.
LOSSES HAVEN'T HURT CARDS' SEED
It's good to see that the NCAA is finally rewarding teams that play a tough schedule -- both conference and non-conference -- a move that came with the addition of the organization's NET rankings to replace the puzzling Rating Percentage Index (RPI).
And no better proof of the effectiveness and impact of the new approach can be found than Louisville.
In the reveal of the top 16 seeds for the NCAA Tournament by the selection committee last Saturday, the Cards were the No. 15 overall seed, equating to a No. 4 seed. They promptly lost two games in four days. And guess what -- after an 80-75 overtime road loss to No. 24 (NET) Florida State and Tuesday's homecourt defeat by then-No. 1 Duke, UofL dropped just one slot, to No. 16, remaining a projected 4 seed.
UofL is also predicted as a 4 seed by Bracketmatrix.com. However, The Cards didn't fare as well in a couple of well-respected individual Bracketology projections. ESPN's Joe Lunardi demoted them to No. 5 in the Midwest and CBSsports.com's Jerry Palm relegated them to a 6 seed in the West.
The Cards own four wins over ranked opponents -- North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Michigan State and NC State, although the Wolfpack has since dropped out of the AP ratings and is No. 31 in the NET -- and have suffered no so-called bad losses. Besides Duke and the Seminoles, all but one of their other defeats have come against teams ranked in the NET Top-25 -- Tennessee (4), Marquette (20), Kentucky (6) and UNC (9). The exception is Pittsburgh (104). In all, six ACC teams are ranked in the top 25 and nine in the top 50.
UofL is 5-7 against Quadrant One teams (home games vs. top 50 and road games vs. top 75) and No. 3 in strength of schedule. The Cards have three games left against Quadrant One opponents, home and home against Virginia and at Syracuse. The Cavaliers are No. 3 in the NET, Syracuse 48th. Among their other three games, Clemson (48) and Boston College (130) are in the Quadrant Two category, while Notre Dame (100) is a Quadrant Three foe.
Louisville will definitely be an underdog at Virginia, and possibly at Syracuse and against the Cavs in the Yum! Center. They might be able to stay on the No. 4 line with a 3-3 record the rest of the way, but they probably can't afford a loss to either Clemson, BC or the Irish. And, of course, they could still go up or down before Selection Sunday based on their play in the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, N.C.
A RARE PERFORMANCE IN A LOSS
Here's an interesting note from UofL stats guru Kelly Dickey of RealCardGame:
After winning 119 straight games when faring better than its opponent in FG%, 3FG%, FT%, rebounds and assists, UofL has now lost two in a row the same way. The difference in both those games was turnovers -- 40 that produced 51 points combined by FSU and Duke.
In the 3-point era, UofL is now 124-3 under those circumstances.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.