LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Louisville, already one of the best college basketball teams in the nation, is about to get even better. How much better remains to be seen, but certainly deeper both inside and outside with the addition of freshman point guard David Johnson and junior center Malik Williams.
Both players returned from injury and made brief season debuts in Wednesday's 76-50 win over USC Upstate. They'll have a chance to continue their comeback Sunday when No. 2 UofL (5-0) meets Akron (4-1) at 6:05 p.m. in the KFC Yum! Center.
Williams played five minutes Wednesday, getting three points and three rebounds, while Johnson had four points on two dunks in four minutes.
"We have big expectations for both those guys," UofL coach Chris Mack said Friday before practice after a day off Thursday. "Malik has been in games, this is not his first rodeo, but for David this is the first time he's played college basketball. So there's going to be some ups and downs with both of them, but certainly David, especially with all the pressure that comes with playing the point guard role.
"I was really pleased with the small sample size, but I wouldn't have put them in the game if I didn't think they would be up to the task and help our team be better."
Johnson, a 6-foot-5 product of Trinity High School, has the size and talent to match up against virtually any guard he will face. The 6-11 Williams is a proven center who has shooting range and can defend both in the post and on the perimeter.
"Those guys can definitely help us out," forward Dwayne Sutton said. "David can play the one and two, Malik the four and five (positions). Having those two back will add to both our offense and defense."
Freshman forward Samuell Williamson is even more enthusiastic about the value Johnson and Williams will provide.
"David and Malik coming back is going to be huge for us," Williamson said. "I think our potential is through the roof. Obviously, that adds to the depth we have already. Sky's the limit for us."
Their availability, even on a limited bases at first, presents Mack with a problem, although a good one: how to tweak his starting lineup and rotation with so many outstanding players at his disposal.
He has started the same lineup all five games, with Darius Perry at point guard, Ryan McMahon at shooting guard, Jordan Nwora and Sutton at the wings and Steven Enoch in the pivot. It's been a very effective group, so Mack may not want to tinker with it for the time being. More than likely, for awhile Johnson will come off the bench to give Perry a break and Williams will sub for Enoch. At times, of course, there could be various other combinations on the court.
Mack cautioned not to expect major impacts from either of the newcomers immediately. He also noted that the current starters and key reserves Williamson and Fresh Kimble, along with Aidan Igiehon, may have to adjust to less playing time or a different role.
"We're going to have to ease David and Malik in, simply because of conditioning, because of them being a little rusty, and because we've got eight or nine guys that are used to playing," Mack says. "But they're going to be hard to keep off the floor and our team as a whole has to understand that it's about the team, about sacrificing some things -- whether that's a few shots, a few minutes, a starting role. Elite teams and great teams are willing to do that even despite the outside noise trying to tear them apart."
Johnson suffered a left shoulder injury late in July that required surgery. Williams had been sidelined since Sept. 20 with a broken bone in his right foot. Both players said they experienced no ill effects from their injuries during their short stints against USC Upstate. Both of Johnson's baskets were dunks. "My shoulder feels stronger than it did before I hurt it and that's a positive thing," Johnson said. "I've been itching to get out there and I finally got to do it, so I think I'm only going to go up from here."
Williams scored on a cut to the basket off a pass from Nwora and hit one of two free throws.
"I feel great," Williams said. "I'm good. I'm here to stay. But I've got to get a lot better, get in the gym and get back in good basketball shape. I feel like I'm on the same page as I was last year, so now it's about improving."
AKRON FAVORS FAST PACE
Akron will be the best team Louisville has faced since its opening game at Miami, which admittedly isn't saying much considering the pillowy soft schedule the Cards have played since then.
As part of the Global Sports Shootout, like UofL, Akron has played three of the same teams -- NC Central, USC Upstate and Youngstown State -- and blown all of them out, same as the Cards.
But Mack points to the Zips' 94-84 loss at West Virginia on Nov. 8 as an indication of the threat they could pose. Still, Akron is ranked only 111th by Kenpom and is picked to finish fifth in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference.
The Zips have just one starter shooting better than 43 percent -- 6-7 Camron Reece at 58.3, but he has taken only 24 shots. As a team, they're at 37.8 percent, including just 30.0 from 3-point range.
If nothing else, Mack predicts it will be an up-tempo game.
"They play really fast," he said. "They really go quickly from defense to offense, even on a made shot. It's going to be the fastest team we've played so far. We want to be good in transition defense no matter who we're playing. Certain teams make it easier. Our guys have to understand that Akron isn't one of them."
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.