COMMENTARY

Cards not playing with edge of NCAA championship contender

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Having watched the current Louisville basketball team play 23 games now, I must admit, I'm still somewhat puzzled by their erratic performances, the latest reason for consternation coming in the Cardinals' 86-76 victory over Wake Forest Wednesday night.


In case you need reminding, the Demon Deacons will never be confused with Duke or Florida State, two of only three heavyweights in the depleted ACC this season. Wake came into the game in last place in the league with a 3-8 record, the kind of team the nation's fifth-ranked group should have dispatched with relative ease. Like the Blue Devils did last month, 90-59.


Instead, the Cards initially played like the 9 p.m. start was past their bedtime, spotting their visitors a 15-point lead with a lethargic first half before finally waking up and dominating the second half with the kind of energetic play that should have been on display much sooner.


Even though there's a lot to like about this team -- talent, depth, defense, shooting -- and the Cards are surviving well record-wise, they have lacked the consistency from game-to-game and even half-to-half that will be necessary for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.


What's more, their off-and-on struggles aren't even coming against March Madness-caliber teams. With the notable exception of the win at Duke, UofL hasn't defeated a single team in its other 10 victories with a winning record in ACC play, or any that figure to make the NCAA Tournament field.


Louisville's inconsistency would be easier to understand if this was a young team, but the Cards start two fifth-year seniors, a grad transfer and two juniors, while another fifth-year senior and a junior are two of the top subs.


Referring Tuesday to the loss against Florida State nearly a month ago that preceded the winning streak, Ryan McMahon termed it a "wakeup call." But various players said the same thing after defeats by Texas Tech and Kentucky, as well as close calls against Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. How many times should a veteran team be allowed to hit the snooze button on its alarm clock?


Of course, you can't argue with the results. The Cards will carry a nine-game winning streak, a 20-3 overall record and a league-leading 11-1 markexc into Saturday afternoon's matchup with Virginia (15-6, 7-4) in the KFC Yum! Center. But they have lacked the consistency from game-to-game and even half-to-half that will be necessary for a deep run in the NCAAs.


UofL coach Chris Mack realizes that, naturally. That's why he seemed more exasperated than excited with the victory and the fact his team had outscored Wake 52-30 in the second half due to a more energized defensive effort after trailing 46-34 at intermission. The Cards held the losers to 30.0 percent shooting after allowing 60% (18-30) in the first half.


He was reluctant to talk about positives such as Dwayne Sutton and Fresh Kimble's roles in sparking the second half resurgence because he was still fuming over the terrible start. For the record, Sutton got 13 of his 15 points and eight of his 11 rebounds in the final 20 minutes, while Kimble had 10 of his 14 points, three of his four assists and three of his four rebounds after intermission.


"I could probably go down the line and say, 'This guy played really well and played with a lot of energy in the second half,'" Mack said. "But my mind's sort of focused right now on the first half. It's really hard to talk about all the good things when we have to shore up that stuff from the very beginning.


"Your guess is as good as mine (about the reason). If I had the answer, then we probably would've come out and played that way in the very beginning. We have to be much more electric to start the game and we better figure it out and rectify it quick or it's going to bite us in the (butt)."

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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