Louisville's undefeated basketball team staked its claim to No. 1 in impressive fashion Friday in Nashville, leading from wire-to-wire in an emphatic 71-54 victory over Western Kentucky in Bridgepoint Arena.
And right on cue, the Cardinals (7-0) will face by far their toughest test of the young season against surprising Michigan (7-0) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge Tuesday night in the KFC Yum! Center.
Both polls will be released Monday and that game could potentially pit two top-10 teams against each other. The Wolverines aren't currently ranked, but they will be, after defeating No. 6 North Carolina 73-64 and No. 8 Gonzaga 82-64 back-to-back to win the Battle 4 Atlantis championship Friday afternoon.
"My job is to get them to understand that we haven’t arrived," UofL coach Chris Mack said of his players and a possible No. 1-ranking. "No team has arrived. A lot of people are saying we haven’t played anybody. Maybe we aren’t deserving. I really don’t care. All I care about is improving from this game against WKU. If we were to get the No. 1 ranking on Monday and lose on Tuesday, we wouldn’t be the first to lose it as soon as we got it. I really am more concerned about the game on Tuesday."
Forward Jordan Nwora, who led all scorers with 25 points, apparently had already gotten that message immediately after beating Western.
"Back to practice. Number one's not gonna mean a lot," Nwora said. "We know we have a really good team coming in on Tuesday. They're coming off a high. This will be our biggest challenge so far. We'll have to stay locked into the game plan and do what we do."
If nothing else, Louisville certainly made a believer out of WKU coach Rick Stansbury.
"Congratulations to Louisville. It's very obvious why they'll be the No. 1 team come Monday," Stansbury said. "They don't have a lot of holes. They do two things better than anyone else in the country. They have multiple weapons, and multiple big guys to throw it to in the paint. Not a lot of teams in the country have that. They can score at all five positions."
UofL jumped on the Hilltoppers right away and then when Western rallied midway through the second half, instead of faltering as they had in their last outing against Akron, the Cards regrouped and pulled away again.
Louisville was solid in all areas, but especially on defense. The winners limited WKU to one-of-17 from 3-point range and 37 percent overall. They also controled the boards 39-25 and set the tone by forcing the Toppers into 10 turnovers in the first half.
If there was a Defensive Star of the Game award it would go to Louisville's 6-11 backup center Malik Williams. He and Steven Enoch alternated in the first half against 6-11 Charles Bassey, Western's NBA prospect. But after Bassey got three baskets underneath in the first three minutes of the second half, Williams took over the defensive assignment from Enoch and limited Bassey to two free throws the rest of the way. The big sophomore finished with a quiet 14 points and nine rebounds, hitting 6-of-15 shots.
Williams, still shaking off the rust from his broken foot, had eight points and nine rebounds.
"After Bassey hit those two or three shots, Malik came in and really did a good job defensively," Mack said. "I've been saying for a long time that he's one of the best big man defenders in the country and tonight he proved it. He kept his position between Bassey and the rim, and when the shot goes up uses his long arms to come up with the defensive rebound. The way they came out in the second half worries a coach because if Bassey gets it going he can get your whole frontcourt in foul trouble."
UofL took charge at the outset, racing to leads of 11-2 and 21-7 as WKU missed its first seven shots and 11 of its first 14 and committed four turnovers. The Cards led by as many as 19, 28-9, in the first half and were on top 37-23 at halftime.
"I thought our guys were really in tune to start the game," Mack said. "They were ready to play."
The Toppers used a UofL dry spell that generated just one basket in six minutes to mount an 11-4 run that narrowed the margin to 51-42. But the Cards promptly answered with a 13-2 burst that put the game out of reach at 64-44. Five different players scored during the surge.
"We were able to stay locked in and everybody did what they needed to do and played their role," Nwora said. "We hit a few big shots and were able to stretch the lead back out."
During Western's rally, UofL starting forward Dwayne Sutton, who wound up with 15 points and seven rebounds, was on the bench for a rest and Mack thought his return played a role in getting the Cards back on track.
"I don't know if this is the impetus behind that run, but Dwayne was sitting for a little while and we were stymied a little and they were crawling back in," Mack said. "The moment he went back in he came up with an offensive rebound. That's just what he does. We've got so many guys that can go, but I don't know if any of them ever go as hard as Dwayne."
UofL was able to win handily without the usual contribution from guard Ryan McMahon, who uncharacteristically missed his first four 3-pointers before finally making one with 7:05 left during the Cards' decisive run for his only points. Coming into the game, he was averaging 12.3 points per game and shooting 57.1 percent from behind the arc.
"Ryan didn't get going like he normally does," Mack said. "He did hit that one that helped take the wind out of their sails, but I'm used to seeing him hit about three or four of those."
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.