Delayed reaction: Louisville basketball whipped at Clemson
There's no conceivable way to put a positive spin on the performance by Louisville basketball on Saturday afternoon. The Cardinals objectively and subjectively, both analytically and by the eye test, were lethargic, ineffective, and outplayed from the opening tip. And unlike Louisville has so many times this season, Clemson never gifted Louisville a segment of the game to allow for a run to make it competitive. Instead, Louisville has now dropped back to back games and while it might not actually be the case, is beginning to look like a team no closer to having an identity than the day the season began.
With an opportunity to watch the game again and digest what I saw, here are a handful of reactions.
The lineup change that felt manipulative, not motivational
I've been married for almost ten years now. I know what it's like to be wrong but I'm no closer to enjoying admitting it than I was ten years ago. I will confess I was wrong about Chris Mack's decision to bench Jordan Nwora on Saturday. I thought it would send a message to the team that nobody was safe and that even the identified star of the team would be held accountable. I also thought it would send Nwora himself a message that he wasn't above showing maximum effort and that this team needs the best version of him in order to succeed. I was wrong. It didn't send that message in either direction.
While freely admitting that I don't have a clue what would actually motivate Jordan Nwora to at least appear to be straining and playing with all his might, it seems obvious now that being made an example of is not it. But does anything work? As my good friend put it, Jordan doesn't seem to respond to carrots or sticks. What do you do with that?
As for the team, I'm starting to think they took the move to bench Nwora as manipulative and not as motivational. That is, they saw it as an effort to get them to straighten up instead of seeing it as merit-based and a reminder of Mack's refusal to lower his standards for anyone.
It's ok to say what we've all been thinking: Jordan Nwora wasn't the starter to be benched. At least not for anything we on the outside have seen.
Louisville is heading in the wrong direction as a defensive team and they picked games some of the worst offensive teams in the country in which to display that defensive slide. Neither Virginia, Georgia Tech, or Clemson were strained on the offensive end by what Louisville does as a team defensively. And it's a trend that's been hidden, statistically, by a few key good performances.
It's fashionable, locally, to say the problem is the pack line defense. Up to now, I have resisted that line of thinking because employing the pack line certainly hasn't kept Virginia from being a dogged defensive team. I believe the pack line works best as an underdog strategy. That is, when players feel they need the cohesion of the overall strategy to be a good defensive team, they doggedly defend within the constraints of the system.
But Louisville has elite athletes. It's not a team of underdogs and overlooked guys. Darius Perry is the clearest example of a player whose skill set and attitude are simply not maximized by the pack line. On the defensive end of the floor, the team often appears like the dog being asked to balance the treat on his nose before finally being allowed to eat it. It feels like the attitude of the defensive philosophy is more Peter Sirmon than Todd Grantham.
I don't think it's a coincidence the team seems to snap to attention in those stretches where Mack experiments with zone defenses.
It's not either/or
In games like the one we saw on Saturday, Louisville Twitter quickly degenerates into two camps: the camp that says Mack is the problem and the camp that says the players (or some individual player) are the problem. We don't have to choose. Individual players can be an issue and we can just as correctly point out where Mack is making mistakes in our opinions. Neither side is above being critiqued. Nor do we have to be coaches or players ourselves in order to merit having an opinion on if it's good or not.
When I took over the afternoon show on 93.9 I remember Drew Deener and I having a discussion about the proper way to be a partner with Louisville and still maintain enough of distinction to be critical when called for. His advice: critique events and not people. That is, focus on the events and try to, as much as possible, avoid making sweeping judgments about the people themselves.
Both Mack and the players have plenty of room for improvement. Virtually everyone is ready to at least see how the team will play if David Johnson is the starting point guard. Mack himself said after the game Saturday he isn't sure what the answers are but that he has to do a better job motivating. That's ultimately true. The output is ultimately his responsibility. But the players have to be accountable too. They're often listless on defense. Careless with the ball. Passive in fighting for rebounds or loose balls.