Let the madness continue: Louisville aims for No. 1

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- All of a sudden, Louisville's basketball game against Western Kentucky on Friday afternoon in Music City has taken on more significance on the national stage.

Just don't expect UofL coach Chris Mack to consider it a big deal.

Top-ranked Duke's stunning homecourt upset loss to unranked Stephen F. Austin on a buzzer-beating layup Tuesday night puts the No. 2 Cardinals (6-0) in position to ascend to the No. 1 spot for the first time in seven seasons.

UofL and WKU (6-1) will tip off at 5:04 p.m. ET in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Unfortunately, many Card fans won't be able to see it because, incredibly, the game isn't being televised -- at least not by conventional means. Instead, it is being streamed on Facebook with a CBS SportsNet crew.

While the stakes have obviously been raised for the Cards with the No. 1 ranking on the line, Mack -- predictably -- isn't buying it.

"I think everybody that covers college basketball this year continues to say there are no great teams out there," Mack said prior to practice Wednesday afternoon. "So I guess if we were fortunate enough to win we might be the best of the mediocres.

"I don't know what 'stakes' means. It's one game. We try to win every game we play. Every team has a net ranking, an RPI, but I'm just worried about winning the game. Maybe I would get yelled at my lake house a lot louder -- it's in western Kentucky -- a few neighbors might make fun of me.

"I don't want to come across as dismissive or anything. The only thing I know is we're playing a team that's really good and we worry about the next practice. Just trying to get better. All the other stuff, the extraneous stuff, like them being an in-state opponent or the possibility of becoming No. 1, I don't worry about any of that, I really don't."

Mack acknowledged that he saw part of the Duke game because it was on in the background while he was watching film of his team. Did he get nervous seeing another top-five team go down, knowing there is a target on Lousville's back as well?

"I don't get nervous watching television," he said. "I've got plenty of things to be nervous about. Watching TV ain't one of them."

Mack added that he hasn't deemed it necessary to warn his team about being ready to play against perceived lesser opponents in light of the early rash of upsets.

"I've got bigger problems to worry about," he said. "I think our guys mostly know me well enough that I don't get caught up in the outside world's perception of our team, where we need to answer critics or how we deal with praise.

"I would hope that our staff can get that across to our players without having to watch other teams set examples. If they feel like in any way, shape or form that we're okay or we're doing a good job, then I'm doing something wrong."

The last time UofL was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll was the final poll of 2013 after it had won the national championship. The Cards had been No. 1 earlier that season -- the week of Jan. 14 with a 16-1 record, their only loss having come against No. 5 Duke 76-71 in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.

But the Cards' first stay at No. 1 didn't last long. Later in the week they lost to No. 6 Syracuse, 70-68, at home, triggering a three-game losing streak that saw them drop to No. 12. They were ranked fourth entering the NCAA Tournament, behind Gonzaga, Duke and Indiana.

This season, March Madness has arrived in November. If UofL defeats Western it will become the fourth team already to reside at No. 1, following Michigan State, Kentucky and Duke.

"We've only played six games, but this college basketball season's been up and down for a lot of teams and it's hard to tell who'll be there at the end," UofL center Steven Enoch said. "But as long as we stick to our principles, things will fall into place for us.

Enoch repeated the company line when asked about playing for the top ranking.

"We don't pay too much attention to the rankings," he said. "It doesn't matter to us because what really matters is the outcome at the end of the year. That's our standard. But I have enough confidence in this team to say we're one of the best in the country."

ENOCH VS. BASSEY

Enoch will have one of the toughest jobs on both ends of the court against Western because he'll be facing a sure-fire future pro in 6-foot-11 Charles Bassey. A redshirt sophomore who considered jumping to the NBA this past spring, Bassey is averaging 15.7 points and 9.7 rebounds while shooting 55.1 percent.

"Bassey is an NBA player. He should have gone last year, that would have been very nice," Mack joked. "He's big, he's very skilled, he's got a soft touch and when he gets to the free throw line he converts (78%). Then they've got some guys who can really shoot the ball from the 3-point line so it stretches your defense, and at the same time you have such a concern about what he's doing in the interior. Offensively, they have the makings of a special group."

It won't be the first time Enoch has seen Bassey; they played against each other at a Nike camp in the summer.

"Charles is a really good player," Enoch said. "He's skilled, he's a great athlete. We need to stick to our principles as far as fronting the post and stuff like that, and try to make sure we can contain him the whole game."

Bassey will be by far the biggest challenge faced this season by the 6-10 Enoch, who has feasted on undersized, inferior post players to post averages of 11.7 points and 8.7 rebounds with 56.6 percent shooting in 23 minutes per game. He says he's eager to face Bassey.

"Definitely. I love playing against high competition, people who will give me a challenge. Looking forward to Friday's game."

Reserve center Malik Williams (6-11) will also likely see action against Bassey, giving Enoch an occasional rest or filling in for him in case of foul trouble.

As Mack noted, Bassey is not a one-man show. He is surrounded by an experienced supporting cast, all of whom are averaging in double figures. The group includes two former Kentucky Mr. Basketballs in 6-2 point guard Taveion Hollingsworth (11.6 ppg, 3.6 apg, 4.1 rpg) and 6-5 redshirt Carson Williams (13.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg).

Williams, who formerly played at Northern Kentucky, and Hollingsworth were back-to-back Mr. Basketballs in 2016-17, from Owen County High and Lexington Dunbar, respectively. Hollingsworth started all 34 games at WKU last season, as did 6-5 senior Jared Savage (10.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg). The other regular is 6-3 IUPUI grad transfer Cameron Justice (15.0 ppg).

UofL and WKU are remarkably similar offensively. The Cards rank eighth nationally in field goal percentage at 53.0, while the Hilltoppers are fifth at 52.8. In 3-point percentage, UofL is eighth (42.4) and WKU 16th (41.1). The Cards average 83.5 points per game, the Toppers 84.0.

And like the Cards, the Toppers are coming off a late scare, escaping with a 69-64 win over Fordham in the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam in the fourth-place game. They suffered their only loss, 77-75 against Bowling Green, in the first round.

"We came into this tournament playing pretty loose and fast," WKU coach Rick Stansbury said after the win over Fordham. "We hadn't been challenged in the halfcourt yet. Here, the execution part of the last five minutes was really important. … Those are the areas we need to get better in."

This should easily be the first 40-minute test of the season for Louisville. The Cards fell behind Miami at the start in their season opener, but built a 27-point lead in the second half before freshmen subs let it dwindle to the final 87-74 score.

Then Sunday against Akron, UofL led by as many as 22 points in the first half and by 14 going into the last four minutes, then had to fight off a last-minute rally by the Zips for an 82-76 victory. Other than that, it's been a stress-free non-conference ride so far.

"I thought our offense was deplorable against Akron, especially in the second half," Mack said. "We took quick shots. We've become a team that when we get up we get away from how we practice and how we do things on both ends of the floor. The sign of a mature team is a 180 from them. We've got a lot of maturing to go through."


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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