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Louisville coach Chris Mack says Cardinals need to work on consistency, improve on the ‘little things’

By Russ Brown
Kentucky Today

After getting almost unanimously favorable reviews for their performance in losing causes in the Big Apple over the weekend – okay, their coach wasn’t impressed, but that’s pretty much the norm so far – Louisville’s basketball players get a chance to impress the home folks in yet another game against a marquee opponent.

UofL (3-2) will take on its second top 10 opponent in less than a week when it hosts No. 9 Michigan State (5-1) at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN) in the KFC Yum! Center.

In their opening game of the NIT Season Tipoff in the Barclays Center Friday, the Cards hung tough against No. 5 Tennessee before fading late in a 92-81 loss, then dropped a 77-74 overtime thriller against offensive juggernaut Marquette Friday night.

Those competitive efforts against quality competition raised hopes that youthful UofL won’t be overmatched in many games, if any, this season, especially on their homecourt. And the Cards can further certify that belief with a strong showing against an experienced MSU club whose calling cards are toughness and deadly outside shooting.

“I think we saw we can play with a team like Tennessee, or a top 5 team, for 32-33 minutes until we let it slip away,” said starting guard Christen Cunningham. “So, we’ve got to take that and put it together with a 40-minute effort.”

Louisville sophomore guard Darius Perry is the second-leading scorer at 11 points per game. (Photo from Louisville Athletics)

Louisville coach Chris Mack, loathe to praise his team after a defeat, said during his preview press conference Monday afternoon that he wants to see more consistency from the Cards than they displayed in the Barclays Center.

“We played well in stretches, we played poor in stretches, so I think just finding the ability to be consistent is what we’re searching for, both individually and collectively,” Mack said. “But we don’t take away any excitement in losing games.

“I think as a coach you want to be able to count on knowing what a player’s going to bring to the table every night and not having these highs and lows that your teammates aren’t prepared for. In order for us to win, can’t happen. You have to be the same guy every single night on the floor — your effort, your communication and quite honestly your effectiveness.”

Mack went on to say that it was little things such as taking the wrong angle on a screen, remembering a play or going to the wrong side of the floor that proved fatal in the two losses.

“We still have to get to the point where we value the little things it takes to win games,” he said. “And to me that was probably the most glaring thing that came out of New York is that down the stretch those things weren’t valued enough to close out games and win games.”

Nevertheless, there were certainly some bright spots in the defeats, most notably Akoy Agau and Cunningham.

The 6-foot-8 Agau earned his most extensive playing time of the season against Tennessee because Stephen Enoch and Malik Williams (a combined 3 points and 5 rebounds in 25 minutes) were so ineffective. Agau, a well-traveled, 23-year-old graduate transfer, had 11 points and five rebounds in 16 minutes, hitting 4-of-6 shots and all three free throws. He had played in only one of Louisville’s first three games, getting seven points and seven rebounds against Southern. He played nine minutes against Marquette, with six points and two rebounds.

Mack called Agau “a pleasant surprise,” adding that he “played great for the most part. I think you saw in New York what he can be for our team at times because he has a poise about him that right now the other two need to gain.”

However, Agau will never be a 30- to 35-minute player because numerous surgeries have limited his mobility and stamina.

Mack also liked the play of Cunningham, who scored a career-high 16 points against Marquette and hit 9-of-18 shots in the two games while committing zero turnovers in 57 minutes.

“I think CC played a whale of a game against Marquette,” Mack said. “He did a terrific job of being aggressive, but at the same time not being reckless. Defensively, I thought he was locked in. He did a really good job on both ends of the floor, so what you saw of CC against Marquette is who we need him to be.”

“I definitely played better in New York than I did earlier,” said the Samford grad transfer. “But I think that’s just part of getting comfortable with my teammates and kind of realizing how I need to play to help this team and for us to be successful.”

Another grad transfer, reserve guard Kwane Fore from the University of Richmond, also showed he can be a positive factor in the future, with five points, three assists and just one turnover in 25 minutes.

Mack juggled his lineup slightly against Marquette, with Ryan McMahon replacing Darius Perry at guard, and McMahon is listed as the probable starter against Michigan State. Perry had started the first four games and contributed eight points and a game-high eight assists against the Vols, so it’s not clear why he lost his starting job and played only 15 minutes Friday. McMahon scored six points against the Golden Eagles.

UofL’s guards will have a tough assignment trying to contain Michigan State’s outstanding backcourt of 6-5 Joshua Langford and 6-1 Cassius Winston, who are averaging 18 points apiece.

Winston is coming off a spectacular MVP performance in the Las Vegas Invitational during which he averaged 19.5 points, 8.5 assists, 3.0 rebounds and shot 50 percent both overall (13-26) and from the 3-point line (7-14) in wins over UCLA (87-57) and Texas (78-68). On the season he’s shooting 47.5 percent (19-40) from long range.

Langdon was also a standout in the Vegas event. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Longhorns and averaged 21.5 points and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 57.7 percent (15-26), including 61.5 percent on threes (8-13).

“Defensively, you have to put an emphasis on being there on the catch and not letting them get clean looks, rhythm threes,” Cunningham said. “One of the best parts about playing at Louisville is you get to play against the best players night in and night out. Winston and Langdon shoot the ball at a really high level, so me, Darius, Kwane, Ryan, we’ll take that as a challenge.”

Center Nick Ward (6-9) is the only other Spartan averaging above eight points per game at 13.8.

In his nine seasons as head coach at Xavier, Mack never coached against Michigan State’s Tom Izzo either during the regular season or in the NCAA Tournament, but he still knows what to expect.

“They are one of the premier teams in the country when it comes to getting the ball out of the net and up the floor,” Mack said. “That’s a huge key to the game, trying to make sure they’re trying to earn their points in the half court vs. getting them in one-on-oh situations.”

Michigan State has won five in a row since losing its opener to No. 1 Kansas 92-87. The Spartans, who posted a 30-5 record last season and won the Big Ten regular-season championship, are third in the nation in assists per game (21.2), 13th in 3-point field goal percentage (42.8) and 14th in rebounding margin (13.2).

“Everything about Michigan State oozes toughness,” Mack said. “They’ve been the gold standard, one of the programs in college basketball that’s consistently consistent. They’re good every year and their identity is the same every year. They’re hard-nosed, they’re going to play together, they’re going to play with passion. And there’s a toughness about ’em on both ends of the floor. We’re trying to get to that point.”

UofL is hoping to avoid a three-game losing streak that could easily turn into four, with a trip to Seton Hall (4-2) Saturday coming up next. That’s a team Mack is more familiar with, having battled the Pirates and former Rick Pitino assistant Kevin Willard in the Big East.

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 www.0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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