CORAL GABLES, Fla.
Walking through the Miami airport on Monday, I saw a Louisville fan with an old T-shirt on, featuring the words, “Here comes the boom!”
I got to thinking, Louisville has done a lot of good things in the past year, but the Cardinals don’t really have that “boom” factor, that knockout punch. Louisville will grind you down, I remember thinking, but they don’t throw the haymaker and wobble you.
Shows what I know.
On Tuesday at Miami, No. 5-ranked Louisville knocked the Hurricanes out with three blows. The Cardinals were trailing by seven, when Ryan McMahon made a three-pointer. Then he made another one, and Miami’s legs were wobbling. Then he made another one and Louisville was up two, but Miami was down for the count.
And Louisville kept punching.
Those shots were the beginning of a 17-0 run. In a blink, the Cardinals were up 21. They led by 19 at half. Midway through the second half, they led by 30. On the road. In a conference game. In the season opener.
Who knows whether this is foreshadowing. We only learn those kinds of things after the fact. But could it be the return of the boom — that phenomenon coined by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski after his team’s 2013 NCAA Regional Final loss to Louisville? Certainly, with guys like Ryan McMahon and Jordan Nwora, who can make threes in bunches, the potential is there.
“Ryan is a game changer as we know,” Mack said. “He’s an elite level shooter. He shoots the ball with a lot of confidence. I think as a fifth-year senior he’s gotten so much better at a lot of the other things that help you win. He made a big defensive play when they tried to lob it in, held his position and came up with a loose ball. He’s got a real nose for the ball. He made a big two-point shot for us in the second half. He’s more than just a three-point shooter, but with that skill, he’s as good as anybody in the country.”
In the huddle after the game’s third media timeout, Mack said he could tell he had a veteran team. They were down and the start hadn’t been great. But the attitude was professional.
“I thought our guys were very poised,” Mack said of the huddle. “It’s a long game. And they just needed to go out and win that third four-minute war, and that’s what we did.”
Also poised – Louisville’s preseason All-American and ACC preseason player of the year Jordan Nwora. If he wanted to make a big splash in his first ACC game since winning the honor, it didn’t show on the court. He didn’t force anything. He took what the defense gave – and it was determined not to give him much – until more opportunities came his way later in the game. He finished with a game-high 23 points and pulled down 12 rebounds.
“I could tell that he wanted to press a little bit,” Mack said. “But he’s really grown trusting that his teammates are going to find him. He’s going to be circled on every scouting report. Guys are going to try to make their mark, and coaches are going to try to take him away. But I thought Jordan did try to let the game come to him. We’ll take that ratio of two assists to two turnovers. . . . I thought he did a great job defensively outside of a few possessions. And offensively, he’s really good. . . . He’s matured a lot.”
If you look at the plus-minus chart, which gauges scoring margin while a particular player is on the court, you see three players stick out for the Cardinals.
McMahon (plus-26), Nwora (plus-24) and then there was Dwayne Sutton, who was plus 25. Sutton just does everything. He scored 16 points. He grabbed five rebounds. He dished out an assist and had two steals. He didn’t turn it over. He defended.
Steven Enoch chipped in 11 points and 12 rebounds. And freshman Samuell Williamson played a mature offensive game, driving for scores, making a three-pointer while being fouled, grabbing five rebounds while finishing with 13 points.
“He doesn’t look like a freshman offensively,” Mack said. “. . . He’s still a freshman on defense, but the more he plays the more comfortable he gets.”
Louisville’s offense is different from the one it ran last season. Mack is looking for a little different action of back screens and cuts. The result was more driving baskets. The Cards had 34 made baskets, and 17 of them were layups and dunks.
“We sort of overhauled how we’re playing offensively,” Mack said. “In fairness, Miami probably didn’t have any film on it, maybe a little bit of the Bellarmine game. We got some back cuts, did a good job screening. We can do a better job screening, and we’re going to as time goes on. I just thought it was more conducive to the personnel that we had. So I was pleased outside of the first four minutes, when we turned it over 4-5 times.”
At the finish, with Mack getting some other freshmen more minutes, the 32-point lead it built in the opening minutes of the second half dissipated. But Mack called that a “learning experience.” Other than the start of the game, Louisville was in control.
“I’m sure we were a little nervous,” Mack said. “Guys have been working all summer. I don’t know if you were expecting some machine to come out here, but it was the first time for some of those guys playing on this stage, against some very talented perimeter players. But we got better as time went on.”
In fact, for the middle 20 minutes when they outscored Miami 63-24, they looked pretty machine-like.
“I thought Louisville was very good from start to finish,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “They’re ranked in the top five and they played like it.”
Before Tuesday’s game, WDRB’s John Lewis and I took a drive to Miami Beach, got out and walked around. But before we did, we passed a CVS pharmacy on 5th Street and Washington Avenue. It’s an ordinary drug store with an extraordinary history. The site used to house a gym, where Muhammad Ali trained under Angelo Dundee, working to become “the greatest.”
A short drive away, the team from Ali’s hometown showed the ability to land a knockout punch. If it can figure out a way to finish with that same flourish and tenacity, it could be in store for something special.