No ranked team has taken two more deflating, uninspiring losses in the past week than the Louisville Cardinals, who will see their No. 5 ranking in the AP poll plummet when those numbers refresh on Monday.
The Cardinals followed up their worst game of the season — a 64-58 loss against Georgia Tech on Wednesday night — with an even more disturbing defeat against Clemson on Saturday afternoon. Chris Mack’s Cardinals managed just 14 first half points and trailed by 17 at the break before going on to lose 77-62 against a Clemson club that crawled above .500 (13-12) and is trying to break into the top 80 of KenPom.
Heading into the Clemson game Saturday, Louisville checked in as the No. 3 seed in the South Region according to CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm’s latest projections. With the loss to the Tigers, the Cardinals are likely set up for a drop pending the outcomes of Saturday’s remaining contests.
“There are still teams with games to play, but as competitive as the top of the bracket is below the top line, the loss is likely to drop Louisville another seed line, which is what happened after the loss to Georgia Tech,” Palm said.
Since Louisville’s lost two road games to mediocre teams — dinging its résumé in the process — we’ve been provided an opportunity to scan this squad and assess even further. Here are three things to know in wake of such a troubling defeat.
1. A little bump in the road? Before we go any further, let’s remind all of the Louisville fans pawing the panic button that the Cardinals are 17-5 and still ranked in the top 10 at KenPom and the NET. This is the second two-game losing skid of Louisville’s season; the other one was succeeded by 10-game winning streak that only just came to an end with the Georgia Tech loss on Wednesday.
But in speaking with coaches over the years, and again this season, this 15-20 day window of early-to-mid February is what gets to coaches — and players. For teams easily tracking to make the NCAA Tournament, coaches of those squads worry about hitting a wall in the dog days of the season — when urgency isn’t there, coaches’ voices maybe start to wear on the players with each day and inferior opponents are taken for granted. Louisville is a prime example of just that. You can’t convince me that this same roster of guys would have put up back-to-back clunkers like this if these games were played early in the season or in the ACC Tournament. Team is too good.
2. Jordan Nwora’s All-American campaign is going the way of the dodo. This little game, where nothing is sure: Nwora has gone AWOL and proven his worth in the process. That’s not a good thing. Nwora’s past two games have him at six fouls, seven points and eight turnovers. On Saturday, he came off the bench (a tactic from Mack that catalyzed no spark for Nwora) and managed only five points in 30 minutes, his first points not even arriving until fewer than four minutes remained in a decided game. He did not even attempt a 2-point shot, and his average offensive rating the past two games is a putrid 46.5.
Nwora was a preseason All-American. The Cards need him to be great in order for them to have a chance to make the Final Four. He is in a funk and needs to get out of it immediately in order to put the team’s direction back to its previous place.
3. Louisville’s loss and Duke’s dominant win flip control of the ACC. While Florida State struggled to beat Syracuse and Louisville was lackadaisical yet again, Duke won by 34 against Notre Dame to improve to 12-2. Louisville’s 12-3, FSU 11-3 in the league ledger. The Blue Devils have infamously failed to finish atop the ACC regular-season standings since 2006, but Saturday could prove to be what ends that streak. The top three teams in the ACC — easily — are Duke, Louisville and FSU. The Blue Devils don’t have to play the Cards or Noles the rest of the regular season; FSU gets the advantage of hosting Louisville on Feb. 24, hoping to sweep the series after winning at Louisville on Jan. 4.
All this puts Louisville’s chances of getting the No. 1 seed in the ACC in serious doubt. Not getting the 1 seed means a tougher road to an ACC title game, which can affect seeding, even if slightly. The Cardinals are a good team, but they looked nothing like it this past week. It’s bizarre, but could be a blip. The next two games will be telling. U of L has back-to-back home tilts against two teams that won’t be in the NCAA Tournament: Syracuse and North Carolina. If the Cards are to be taken seriously in March they need to stop fooling around in February and win both of their next two games without leaving much room for interrogation.