LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Chris Mack knows his team has a battle ahead on Tuesday night, when Zion Williamson and the No. 2 Blue Devils come to town.
“It starts with their talent level," Mack said. “But outside of that, they play together, they play extremely hard. On the defensive end, they have high motors and what they maybe lack in experience at times, they make up for with basketball instinct, athleticism, length. They play on offense in attack mode, they go from defense to offense as well as any team I’ve coached against.”
Led by superstar Zion Williamson, Duke has yet again dominated the college basketball landscape. The Blue Devils currently have a 21-2 record, with losses coming at No. 3 Gonzaga and Syracuse.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team has four freshman phenoms with Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones, who together average more than 67 points per game.
On Monday, when asked to compare Williamson to other players he’s seen before, Mack instead opted for a heavy machinery comparison.
“I think he’s one of a kind, he has a body like a tractor trailer," Mack said. "Everybody talks about his vertical, and it’s incredibly impressive because he doesn’t look the part when he’s 285-290 pounds like he’d be able to do that. But what I can’t get over on film is his reaction time. His ability to change directions. You feel like 9 players are in slow motion and one guy’s moving a little bit faster.”
The Cards leading scorer, Jordan Nwora said he’s aware of Williamson, but Louisville is focused on playing their game.
“If you play basketball or play in college, everybody knows Zion, everybody knows what he does,” Nwora said. "We watch film, we’ve seen some of his habits. You know it’s really just playing our defense, really packing it in and hoping not only him out the lane, but RJ and some of those guys out the lane.”
Louisville is coming off a stinging overtime loss at Florida State, in which the Cards turned the ball over a season-high 23 times. Ball security was an issue both Nwora and Mack discussed during the team’s media availability.
“We just have to be tougher with the ball," Nwora said. "There were a lot of turnovers, which ultimately cost us the game. If we had taken care of the ball better, that would’ve been the game. We would’ve felt more comfortable and probably would’ve ending up winning. Just being tougher with the ball, being able to handle pressure better.”
“I think experience is a great teacher and we got a lot of experience on the road on Saturday, a lot of that was negative experience,” Mack said. "We’ve got to be able to be humble enough to correct it, doing drills and doing things every basketball coach with his players is doing to try to correct those things.”
Previously in his career, Mack faced Duke teams as an opposing assistant coach, and says he remembers Krzyzewski’s team’s distinct competitive edge.
“Just how hard they play on both ends of the floor," Mack said. "They play with no entitlement, at least in my past experiences coaching against them. I felt like when they were on offense, the floor was tilted downhill, and guys attacked, and it was hard drives to the rim. And from there they just made the right play. On the defensive end, their style was relentless, they denied, they tried to get you out of whatever you were running and they were very effective at it.”
Louisville will look to evade the Devils defense, running its offense through grad transfer point guard Christen Cunningham. Cunningham leads the ACC in assists in league games, and has served as the conduit for much of the Cards offense this season.
During the loss in Tallahassee, Cunningham was challenged, prompting the Louisville team to evaluate other offensive strategies.
“In practice, we always work on getting it to the guards so they can run our offense," Nwora said. “I think we just got really comfortable with that and that’s why we were looking for CC. But in practice yesterday we talked about it, a lot of guys can bring the ball up in terms of you know starting a break or on a rebound.”
“There are ways absolutely where (CC) doesn’t have to be the play starter," Mack said. "There’s going to be times where we’re trying to run a set play and we can’t get the ball entered, we’ve got to flow into something that allows us to be successful on the offensive end and that’s what we’ve really tried to get better over the last couple days.”
Throughout the season, both Mack and his players have retiterated the message that they’re not focused on what’s happening around the country or the ACC, and their focus is on the next game on the schedule.
But as has everyone in the country, Louisville players and their coach couldn’t help but notice some of Duke and Williamson’s more spectacular moments. One such moment came in Duke’s 81-71 win over Virginia last Saturday, in which Williamson had an especially athletic block against UVA’s De’Andre Hunter. The block went viral immediately, but Nwora said the concern over being on the receiving end of a play like that isn’t his concern.
“To us, it’s just basketball," Nwora said. "It was a great play, but it’s just a basketball play. He blocked a shot, you know get back, and play defense, that’s what you’ve got to do. Take it on and worry about the next play. You know, you’re going to get your shot blocked with Zion, there hasn’t been an athlete like him around in a while, I feel like if I was (Hunter), just worry about the next one, I’m sure that’s what he was thinking too.”
Mack said one point of emphasis for his team in preparation for Tuesday night is taking away Duke’s ability to dominate the offensive glass.
“They’re a team that steals momentum quickly,” Mack said. “With the way they offensive rebound, the way they turn defense into offense. We have to be able as best we can to take those away. If we do then we’ll give ourselves a chance to win. If we don’t we’ll be like their other 21 victims.”
Tipoff for the Cards and Devils is set for 9 p.m. Tuesday.