LOUISVILLE — Last year Louisville entered the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament with a 19-12 record and squarely on the bubble of receiving a bid to the Big Dance.
Today the Cardinals begin play in the ACC tourney with the same record, but as a shoe-in for the NCAA Tournament. On Monday, Louisville was listed as a No. 7 seed in the latest bracketology from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm of CBS Sports.
However, first-year Cards coach Chris Mack isn’t content with that.
“How I look at the tournament is, it’s an opportunity to win a championship,” Mack said Monday. “It’s nice to know that the experts feel like we’ve done enough not [to have] to worry about the second tournament, [and it] not necessarily being a weight on our shoulders heading in. This is a great opportunity for our team. I’m excited to see how we play. It’s one of the best, if not the best, conference tournaments in the country.”
Seventh-seeded Louisville (19-12, 10-8) will begin its quest at 7 p.m. tonight, when it faces 15th-seeded Notre Dame (14-18, 3-15) in the second round of ACC tourney at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. However, the Cards, who are 1-3 in their first three appearances in the league tourney, may have an easier chance of making the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four than winning the ACC tourney title considering they’d have to beat three of the country’s top five teams to do so.
If Louisville beats the Fighting Irish tonight it will face third-ranked, and second-seeded, North Carolina (26-5) at 7 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals. A win there would give the Cards a potential showdown with fifth-ranked, and third-seeded, Duke (26-5). If they survive that, they could see second-ranked, and top-seeded, Virginia (28-2) in Saturday night’s final.
Louisville is coming off its ninth consecutive loss to the Cavaliers. The Cards led by as many as seven points in the second half before falling 73-68 in Charlottesville on Saturday.
“We just have to be a little bit more solid and sharper down the stretch in close games. You find yourself in close games in tournament play a lot,” Mack said.
Louisville finds itself up against a familiar foe tonight. The Cards beat Notre Dame 75-61 just 10 days ago at the KFC Yum! Center. Sophomores Jordan Nwora (20 points, 11 rebounds) and Malik Williams (16 points, 13 rebounds) each had double-doubles in that win, which ended UofL’s four-game losing skid.
“I think we found some confidence in the way we played against Notre Dame, especially in the second half. We had gone four games in a row without scoring 60 points. We obviously broke through in the second half, we scored a boat-load of points,” said Mack, whose team outscored the Irish 46-37 after intermission. “I felt like, even in the practices leading up, we were on the right path. But until you sort of do it in the game you never really know.”
Notre Dame, which downed Georgia Tech 78-71 in a first-round game Tuesday, is led by 6-foot-9 forward John Mooney (14.1 points, 11.2 rebounds). He tallied 20 points and 10 rebounds in Tuesday’s triumph.
The Irish also feature 6-3 junior guard T.J. Gibbs (13.4 points, 3.4 assists) and 6-6 sophomore guard D.J. Harvey (10.7 points, 4.2 rebounds).
The Cards, meanwhile, have been led most of this season by Nwora, who was named the ACC’s Most Improved Player and to the All-ACC third team on Monday. The 6-8 forward, who averages 17.3 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, will likely have to play well if Louisville is going to have any success.
“This tournament is as good as it gets in college basketball. I think our guys are excited to go down to Charlotte and see what we’ve got,” Mack said.
NWORA RECEIVES HONORS
One day after earning ACC Most Improved Player and All-ACC honors, Nwora was named to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association All-District IV team, which encompasses student-athletes from Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
Nwora is the second-most improved scorer in the nation with his 17.3 scoring average (which ranks fifth in the ACC), up 11.6 points per game from his 5.7 average a year ago. He is one of four players in the ACC who has scored 20 or more points at least 12 times this season. Nwora has scored in double figures in 29 of 31 games, including the last 16 in a row, and has produced eight double-doubles this season.
The Buffalo, N.Y. native is UofL’s leader in scoring and rebounding (7.7 rpg, seventh in the ACC). He is also among the league leaders in field goal percentage (44.5, 13th), 3-point field goal percentage (37.2, 10th), 3-pointers made per game (2.3, 12th), defensive rebounds (6.42 per game, fourth) and minutes played (32.2 per game, 19th).
An exercise science major, Nwora was also named to the All-ACC Academic men’s basketball team last week.