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UofL’s ‘elite’ scorer Jordan Nwora is a challenge for UK Wildcats as the two teams collide on Saturday

There is no question that Louisville’s Jordan Nwora will be a primary focus of Kentucky’s defense when the two teams collide Saturday afternoon in the KFC Yum! Center. After all, he is U of L’s leading scorer by a long shot and a guy his coach has called an “elite” offensive player.

But as dangerous as Nwora is with the basketball in his hands, the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward also has the talent to affect games in other ways, such as defense and rebounding, which is what coach Chris Mack has been preaching to him almost from the day he took the job in late March. Now, as the Cardinals (9-3) prepare to take on their biggest rival in their final nonconference game before heading into the grueling Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, Nwora is responding in a big way.

Mack recently described Nwora’s progress during the last eight months as “immense.”

Louisville’s Jordan Nwora will be a key figure in Saturday’s game with the UK Wildcats. (Photo by Robin Cornetet/Kentucky Today)

”My thing with Jordan isn’t offense,” Mack said. “Everybody wants to talk about that; he’s uber-talented, at an elite level, when it comes to his ability to score, create his own shot, the confidence he plays with. But I felt like when we first got here Jordan valued offense and just tolerated defense. I don’t see that in Jordan anymore. I feel like a great thing has happened with Jordan in that he feels accountable to his teammates.

”He’s made great strides on defense. No matter how many points he scores, if he’s giving up the same amount or if he’s not giving the effort that’s required, he sticks out like a sore thumb and his teammates’ resentment will creep in.

”When you’re consistently getting beat or not giving the effort that you should and you start to feel a little guilty because of those guys you’re going to war with, that’s the greatest motivating factor that I think is hitting him between the eyes, and it’s been great to see.”

While Nwora has dedicated himself to improving defensively, the most notable difference has been in his new-found ferocious approach to crashing the boards. After averaging a mere 2.2 rebounds per game coming off the bench as a freshman, Nwora leads Louisville in that category at 8.1. He has reached double figures in three games, with a career-high of 14 in a 68-67 loss to No. 23/25 Indiana, and Ken Pomeroy’s metrics rank him 51st in defensive rebounding percentage in Division I.

”I think I’m just realizing I’m 6-8, so I’m going to have to rebound,” he said, grinning.

Wait a minute. You didn’t know you were 6-8 until now? You doubted the measurements?

Nwora smiled again. “I believed it, but I think I was just always out around the perimeter, so I didn’t really focus on rebounding as much as I needed to. It’s something I think I can do a good job at. I’m going to keep trying my best to crash the glass because it’s something I’m going to have to do every game in order to help the team.

”Rebounding is really just hustle plays, that’s all it is. I still need to do a better job boxing out, but I’m going to keep working on that, keep hustling, going up for it.”

From The Park School in Buffalo, N.Y., where he began his prep career, to Vermont Academy, where he played his senior season and led a team with five other Division I signees at 18.7 ppg., to Louisville, Nwora’s identity has always been as a scorer.

While averaging 12 minutes per game as a reserve last season, he was used primarily to give the Cards another weapon on the perimeter. He took more than half his shots from 3-point range and hit 43.9 percent of them.

This season he is still U of L’s most consistently dangerous long-range bomber, although his percentage has dropped to .400 (26-65). But he is attacking the basket much more, scoring or drawing fouls — and oftentimes both — as evidenced by his 64 free throw attempts, which are tops on the team. He is hitting 75.0 percent from the foul line.

”I’m just being more aggressive and taking advantage of some of the opportunities that are coming my way,” Nwora said.

After coming off the bench in the first five games, Nwora has started the last seven. He has scored in double figures in all but one game (nine vs. Seton Hall) and is the first Louisville player in 17 years to score 20 or more in at least six of the first 10 games. He scored a career-best 24 at IU.

Nwora is shooting 59.5 percent on 2-pointers (44-74) and is overall percentage is 50.4. His 139 field goal attempts, or nearly 12 per game, are 60 more than the second-highest on the team 
– Dwayne Sutton’s 79. But that doesn’t mean Nwora has the green light to shoot any time the urge strikes him.

”Like every player, it’s take the shots our team has earned,” Mack said. “If he hits a couple threes, I’ll run something for him and I expect his teammates to find him. But if he misses a couple, it’s not shoot until I get hot. Losing teams do that. So there’s a responsibility that everybody on our team shares because we’re collectively trying to win the game, not feature one guy. That’s how we’ve always coached and how we’ve always operated.”

Nwora admits to having forced shots or taken contested ones, which he was made aware of during a film session with Mack and assistant coach Dino Guadio, and says he has focused on eliminating them. But he also offers a disclaimer.

”In terms of a green light, if I’m open, yeah, I’m going to shoot it every time,” he said.

The Cardinals have managed to win twice when Nwora hasn’t been at his best, but not against the caliber of competition UK presents. He was 2-of-8 against Seton Hall in U of L’s 70-65 road victory and he took only six shots each against Lipscomb and Kent State, both also Louisville wins.

Although Nwora is U of L’s only double-figure scorer, Sutton, Christen Cunningham, Steven Enoch, Ryan McMahon, Dairus Perry and Malik Williams have all shown they can pick up the slack when needed.

”When teams are concentrating on Jordan, that opens up the court and opens up driving lanes for other guys,” Cunningham said.

No matter how well those ‘other guys’ play on Saturday, though, Nwora will probably have to be at his best, or close, for the Cards to beat the No. 16 Wildcats (9-2) for only the third time in the last 12 seasons.

”Obviously, they’re a very good team and we’ve got to come with our ‘A’ game,’ Nwora said.

The Cards’ took their ‘F’ game into Rupp Arena last year and were clobbered by UK 90-61. Nwora scored just three points and failed to get a rebound in 19 minutes. He doesn’t need to be reminded.

”We all know what happened last year, so we’re just really anxious for this next game coming up,” he said.
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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