These Louisville Men are Better Than I Thought

In my preview of the 2020-2021 Louisville men’s basketball season, I posed a couple specific questions and addressed some very real concerns. I will be the first to admit that through four games, these Louisville Cardinals look much better, or at least much better right now, than I would have ever predicted.

I was a bit of skeptic ahead of Chris Mack’s third season as head coach, but I was hardly the only one. After all, the Cards only returned 25 percent of their total minutes from a team that finished 24-7 and tied for 2nd in the ACC last year. The 2020 recruiting class looked like it had more long term potential than anything. The returners combined for 8 games started a year ago.

I had confidence that David Johnson and Samuell Williamson would make significant leaps in production in their sophomore seasons, and Carlik Jones was as touted as any graduate transfer who has ever committed to Louisville. That being said, this Louisville team was relying on a lot of things to go right for them. So many different pieces needed to fall into place. The only sure thing we thought we had was Malik Williams, and he is going to be sidelined until February at least.

I do not think anyone is all that shocked that Louisville is at 4-0 after two weeks, but it is how they’ve done it that has people excited. True freshman Dre Davis has started every game and looks like he is going to be a major contributor right away. The frontcourt, led by redshirt freshman Jae’Lyn Withers, has not looked nearly as inexperienced as they actually are. David Johnson had not even played that well until his two performances against Prairie View A&M and Western Kentucky.

Editor’s Note: I said in the CSZ group chat that this was a top 25 team and got laughed at…..Carry on…

Carlik Jones, the top ranked graduate transfer in the nation entering this season, is averaging 17.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists in his first four games as a Cardinal, yet that is maybe the fourth or fifth biggest storyline to come out of the past two weeks.

A few observations from Louisville’s first four games:

  • David Johnson is going to shoot it this year. After attempting 23 threes and only making 5 of them all last season, Johnson is 4-13 from long range this year. That’s only 30.8 percent, but it is clear that he has the green light. He looks confident shooting the basketball and is even hitting his free throws at a much higher rate. This is something David clearly worked on this offseason and if he is even an average shooting threat from long range, Louisville’s backcourt is going to be that more dangerous.
  • Speaking of shooting, it appears that Carlik Jones’ junior season at Radford was no fluke. Jones shot 28.1 percent from three-point range in his first two seasons before upping it to 40.4 percent on 109 attempts in 2019-20. Louisville probably needs only one of Jones or Johnson to be a threat from deep, but if both can be, that only affirms their case as one of the elite backcourt duos in America.
  • While we’re on the topic, sophomore Quinn Slazinski is only 2-14 from deep to start the season. I still think he is going to be a valuable floor spacer for this team, but something has looked a bit off. I thought Louisville would need to rely on his shooting, but other guys have stepped up. He’s not a starter on this team when its at full strength, but I still think there is still a role for Quinn. Louisville can afford to be patient with him. That’s not something I would have expected to type two weeks ago.
  • The frontcourt was my biggest area of concern headed into the year after Malik Williams went down, but things look much better than expected thanks to a group effort from Jae’Lyn Withers, JJ Traynor and Aidan Igiehon. Withers looks like a starter even when Malik comes back later on. JJ Traynor will keep earning minutes if he continues to put together hustle plays, especially on the offensive glass. Both Withers and Traynor are finishing at the rim and spacing the floor. Igiehon still has a ways to go defensively, but he’s put together some quality minutes when asked to off the bench. Louisville will undoubtedly be better once Williams returns, but his replacements are off to an admirable start.
  • It seems like everyone is searching for a comparison for Dre Davis. The one I’ve heard the most is Dwayne Sutton, which make sense but Davis’ offensive ceiling looks much higher. Davis led the Cards with 21 points in the win against WKU. Sutton was a great player and major contributor in his three seasons at Louisville, but he never scored 20 points in a Cardinal uniform. Davis is averaging 12.5 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. A Louisville freshman has not averaged double figures since Samardo Samuels scored 11.8 points per game in 2008-2009.

Before the year started, I would have been thrilled with a top-4 finish in the ACC. When you look at things now, the conference seems wide open. Duke was the preseason favorite, but they have some serious issues that need addressing. It appears that Virginia’s offensive struggles from last season have not completely been solved. UNC will be good, but they are no one Louisville should be afraid of. Leonard Hamilton has another solid team at Florida State, but they have only played once so far.

My point is, Louisville looks like a top-20 caliber team right now and should only improve with time. The Cards looks good enough to compete with this current crop of ACC teams at the top. I do not want to raise unrealistic expectations, but there are very real reasons to be high on this squad. I have no clue what is going to happen, but Cardinal fans should absolutely be excited about these next few months.

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