LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - The outlook for college basketball teams can wax and wane from game to game and week to week, and Louisville is currently exhibit No. 1.
Heading into the most difficult stretch of its non-conference schedule two weeks ago, with games in Brooklyn against top-10 Tennessee and Marquette or Kansas, a home game against top-10 Michigan State and their first road test at Seton Hall, the Cardinals looked as if they could be staring into the jaws of a four-game losing streak.
And that skid appeared to be more likely after losses to the Vols and Golden Eagles.
But now the script has flipped. UofL (6-2) upset the Spartans and Pirates, and after dispatching Central Arkansas Wednesday night, the Cards are riding a surprising three-game winning streak and brimming with confidence going into Saturday's matinee against Indiana (7-2) in Assembly Hall in Bloomington (2:30 p.m., Fox).
Surprising, that is, to everyone except those who are most important.
"I was around these guys the whole summer and I don't think anybody coming into the season was thinking we're not going to compete," said Jordan Nwora, UofL's leading scorer with a 17.0 average. "Every team in the country is playing to make the (NCAA) tournament and make a run, and that's what we're going to do too. I've never thought we couldn't do it."
Coach Chris Mack also insists that UofL's impressive performances against high-level competition under a new staff so early in the season hasn't changed his mind about his team's potential.
"Maybe outsiders have. But I said coming into the year I would be disappointed if our team's not a tournament team," Mack says. "Maybe people didn't listen at the time. Not trying to make a wild proclamation; I just think we have enough talent. Do we have enough toughness? Do we have enough togetherness? Are we able to be resilient enough when we hit a skid, whether that's in game or in the season? That's what we're still in the process of finding out.
"I've always had high expectations for this group, but opinions are very fluid around the country. We recognize that you're only as good as your next performance, and there is no tougher environment and tougher team than we've played all year than IU."
Snubbed in preseason polls, the Cards have been flying under the radar, but they're starting to get some attention. For the first time this season, UofL received votes in this week's AP poll and showed up in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology as a No. 12 seed.
Are Mack's players beginning to feel validation from those initial murmurs of relevancy on the national scene?
"I would like to think they take more stock in what their coach says than what other people say," he said. Pause. "But I could be wrong."
A victory over IU would give the Cards even more credibility nationally, enhance their NCAA resume' and -- with their next three games at home against lower-echelon Lipscomb, Kent State and Robert Morris -- set them up to take a seven-game winning streak into their Dec. 29 showdown against Kentucky in the KFC Yum! Center.
"It's nice to know our guys to this point have earned the right to make this a big game, and that's exactly what it is," Mack said. "It's not going to define anybody's season, but we'll find out what we're made of. It's one of the loudest arenas in the country. This is going to be a lot tougher than playing at Seton Hall."
Marquette is a common opponent, and UofL doesn't come off well in the comparison. The Cards lost to the Golden Eagles 77-74 in overtime on Nov. 23 in the Barclays Center, nine days after the Hoosiers had demolished them 96-73 in Assembly Hall.
Watching video of the Marquette-IU game drove home to Mack what NOT to do against the Hoosiers in order to be successful. At the outset, the Golden Eagles turned the ball over too many times and took quick shots. They fell behind 19-4, and never recovered.
So it's no secret that Mack will emphasize ball security and good shot selection Saturday. Although he liked UofL's composure and resiliency after falling behind by 12 points at Seton Hall, he said the Cards can't afford a repeat of that scenario against IU.
"It's going to be twice as loud," Mack said. "We have to make sure we have a better start. Not that that will be the game, but the last thing you want to do is fight from behind. So we have to make sure we do our job on offense and sort of take the crowd out of it, if you will, by being really solid with our decision-making early, generating good shots for one another and not turning the ball over. That's going to be especially important the first 5-10 minutes of the game."
Among other challenges, getting good looks on the perimeter could be difficult because IU has held opponents to 27.0 percent from 3-point range, which ranks 23rd in the country. The Cards, meanwhile, are shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc.
IU will also be another good test for UofL's defense. The Hoosiers rank seventh nationally in field goal accuracy at 51.7 percent and have a pair of dynamic players in 6-8 senior forward Juwan Morgan and 6-6 freshman swingman Romeo Langford, a 5-star recruit and a potential lottery pick in next spring's NBA draft. Langford leads the team in scoring at 17.9 points per game and Morgan is averaging 15.6, along with a team-best 8.4 rebounds. They were both named to the preseason All-Big Ten team.
In scouting IU, Mack said Morgan is a tough mismatch because he plays the five spot most of the time, can post up and is an excellent passer. Langford scores most of his points on drives and mid-range jumpers; he is shooting only 25.7 percent on threes (9-35).
"I can't believe how talented Juwan Morgan is," Mack said. "In asking our staff where he was projected in the (NBA) draft, they tell me middle of second round and I don't get it. People are insane. He has unbelievable feel. He's like Draymond Green to me, only he's a little bit taller. Great passer, can shoot it, can post.
"If he's not a first-round pick, I understand why some of those guys get fired at the next level. He doesn't have maybe NBA All-Star ceiling, but that boy can play. Romeo's also very, very talented. It's amazing how much he can take contact in the lane and still have such a soft touch."
Langford was heavily recruited by former Louisville coach Rick Pitino and was believed to be leaning toward the Cards until the school was caught up in the FBI investigation and Pitino was fired. By the time Mack was hired in March, the New Albany, Ind., native had narrowed his choices to IU, Kansas and Vanderbilt.
But that didn't stop Mack from trying to contact Langford's father the same day he got the job. Did Mack think he had a chance to pull off a last-minute coup?
"Not really," he said. "When you don't get a text returned. . .I wasn't on pins and needles for his announcement. I did talk to his high school coach (Jim Shannon) and they were great. Hey, listen, he's a national recruit. You're not going to win a two-week recruitment, you're just not. But it would have been nice. Absolutely had to give it a try."
The Hoosiers are 6-0 at home, although Marquette of the Big East is the only team from a major conference they have hosted. Their two losses came on the road at Arkansas (73-72) and Duke (90-69).
Mack has never taken a team into Assembly Hall or even faced IU anywhere, but he is familiar with coach Archie Miller from their days in the Atlantic 10 Conference when Mack was at Xavier and Miller was at Dayton. Mack built a 4-2 edge over Miller before the Musketeers moved to the Big East.
"Archie's teams were always very prepared, very competitive," Mack said. "He's a terrific coach, gets the most out of his players. They're gonna dive on the floor for loose balls, they're gonna be amped to play, his team's going to have a spirit about them. Our games against him were all tooth and nail down the stretch except for one. I anticipate it being very similar tomorrow."
Louisville basketball's V.J. King had a big night Wednesday in the Cardinals' win over Central Arkansas, and the sports world took notice of one play in particular.
KING ON SPORTSCENTER
V.J. King's putback dunk against Central Arkansas Wednesday night earned him the No. 2 spot on the show's Top 10 plays segment. The clip shows King soaring over the Bears' DeAndre Jones to grab a rebound of Khwan Fore's missed jumper, then slamming the ball through the hoop one-handed.
BROWN TO JOIN UofL STAFF
-Following on the heels of a report in the Winston-Salem Journal, The Athletic has reported that Appalachian State defensive coordinator Bryan Brown will join Scott Satterfield's new staff at UofL in the same capacity. App State passing game coordinator Frank Ponce is also set to follow Satterfield to Louisville.
"We hate to see any of these coaches leaving," App State interim head coach Mark Ivey told reporters Thursday before practice. "We've been blessed to be around great people, and coach Satterfield is phenomenal. Coach Poince is not out here right now and coach Brown is not out here with us and they'll be missed."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.