Staying No. 1 won't be easy; Michigan gets first shot at Cards

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- As expected, Louisville's basketball team is No. 1 for the first time in six years. Now comes the hard part: staying there, as three previous number ones have learned the hard way.

And staying on top for long won't be easy. Not with a red-hot Michigan (7-0) team invading the KFC Yum! Center Tuesday night for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (7:30 p.m., ESPN) to start a challenging December schedule after a steady diet of visiting cupcakes in November that has helped produce a 7-0 record. The Cards haven't played a Power Five team since beating Miami in their opener on Nov. 5.

Michigan State, Kentucky and Duke have already found out that being ranked No. 1 is the kiss of death, with their residence there cut short by upsets against unranked teams (see Evansville vs. UK and Duke vs. Stephen F. Austin) or a club ranked lower at the time (No. 1 MSU vs. No. 2 UK).

"I'm not worried about the ranking part of it," said U of L coach Chris Mack. "I'm worried about who we're playing, how we're playing. It doesn't really change what I do, what we do. But I know our fans are probably awfully excited. We may lose to Michigan, not because we're the No. 1 ranked team in the country, but because they're really good. We have to be at our best, better than we've been all year. And if we're not, we're gonna get a loss.

"All this stuff is irrelevant. I'm really glad for our fans. Win or lose tomorrow night, it will have nothing to do with the ranking. Michigan is a terrific team. I want to see where our team's at, and whatever happens, try to get better."

However, guard Fresh Kimble acknowledged that he and his teammates have discussed the polls and their desire to break the recent trend.

"We've got to keep that ranking," he said. "We haven't proved ourselves by winning any games at number one, so we'll try to do that tomorrow and keep it going from there."

This is the first No. 1-ranked team Mack has had in his 10-year head coaching career. The closest he came was during his final season at Xavier, 2018, when the Musketeers were No. 3 in the final AP poll. They did earn a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament, but were upset by No. 9 Florida State 75-60 in the second round to finish 29-6.

The Cardinals moved up from No. 2 to the top of the college basketball world in both polls Monday and elevation to the lofty perch comes just in time for a demanding eight-day stretch that features UofL's three toughest opponents by so far.

Before the next polls come out next Monday, U of L will also host rejuvenated Pittsburgh (6-2, 1-0 ACC) in an Atlantic Coast Conference game Friday night, and three days later comes Texas Tech in Madison Square Garden. Then the schedule eases up considerably again with home games against Eastern Kentucky and Miami of Ohio before the Dec. 28 battle with No. 8 UK in Rupp Arena.

Michigan was overlooked in preseason polls and still wasn't ranked in Week 4, but soared into the No. 4 spot Monday with a dominating performance in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. The Wolverines dispatched Iowa State (83-76), No. 6 North Carolina (73-64) and No. 8 Gonzaga (82-64) to win the championship.

Michigan was even an afterthought in that tournament, which featured four Top-25 teams. Then, after beating Iowa State, the Wolverines led the Tar Heels by as many as 24 points and overwhelmed the Zags too with their flowing offense and hustling defense.

Now Michigan is looking like one of college basketball's elite teams and the game with UofL has suddenly become a big one on the national scene.

"I'm sure we're on the map now," said first-year Michigan coach Juwan Howard, the longtime NBA player and member of Michigan's "Fab Five" a quarter-century ago who replaced John Beilein. "A lot of teams are looking and seeing Michigan as a name that's out there. When you beat teams like the teams we've beaten, you're no longer under the radar."

He's got that right. ESPN analyst Dan Dakich even thinks that if the Wolverines beat U of L, giving them victories over three top-10 teams in six days, they deserve to be No. 1. And Mack said, "I'd be hard-pressed to think there are a lot of teams playing better than Michigan."

Howard inherited a team that had lost its top three scorers, but the Wolverines shot 50 percent or better in every Atlantis game. 

Kimble says that containing those marksmen will depend on how much the Cards can make them uncomfortable.

"I feel like comfort level matters at lot in terms of those guys getting comfortable shooting open shots," he said. "If we're there, hand in face and really have great intensity on defense I think we can make them uncomfortable and make them second-guess some of the shots they're taking. We've got a tough job slowing them down, but I feel like we're up to the challenge."

Michigan plays fast, spreads the ball around and sets numerous screens for dynamic 6-0 senior point guard Zavier Simpson, who set a tournament record for assists with 13 against Gonzaga and also had 13 points. He's averaging 12.3 ppg and leads the nation with 9.7 assists per game.

The Wolverines' other marquee player is 7-1 senior center Jon Teske, who averages 13.3 ppg and 9.7 rpg and has 18 blocks. He was named the Atlantis MVP after getting 19 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks in the title game.

HISTORY AGAINST UL--The Cards are battling not only Michigan, but their own history -- 39 years of futility. UofL hasn't won a matchup of AP top-five teams since the No. 2 Cards defeated No. 3 LSU 86-66 in the Elite Eight on March 16,1980, enroute to their first NCAA championship. Since then, they have lost seven straight, the most recent being on Dec. 27, 2014, when No. 1 Kentucky beat No. 4 UofL 58-50 in the KFC Yum! Center.

QUOTABLE--Mack, on being number one--"I walked into the house last night when I felt it was evident we were going to be number one and the first person I saw was my wife (Christi). I said, 'I'm number one.' She said, 'Take out the garbage.'"



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