Louisville Courier Journal
Published 8:20 AM EST Dec 1, 2019
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Louisville is set to inherit the shaky mantle as the top team in college basketball when polls are released Monday. So how's that worked out for other No. 1 teams this season?
Michigan State's run at the top lasted all of one game, as Kentucky topped the Spartans in the Champions Classic season opener. UK took over at No. 1 and looked good against EKU before the Evansville upset. And reigning No. 1 Duke's debacle against unranked Stephen F. Austin isn't exactly ancient history – the Blue Devils picked up two wins before Tuesday's shocker against the Lumberjacks.
If you're Chris Mack, and you're spending your morning reading this column, you can start here. Louisville's coach is well aware of what we just covered.
"If we were to be the No. 1 team on Monday and we lose on Tuesday, we wouldn’t be the first team to lose with the No. 1 ranking," Mack told reporters after his team's 71-54 win Friday over Western Kentucky. "In the grand scheme of things, I’d be more concerned about losing that No. 1 ranking at the beginning of April."
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On one hand, who's more qualified than Louisville to be at the top of the polls? Every other top-five preseason contender has taken a loss, and has shown weaknesses that need to be fixed.
But Mack has heard the criticism, too. WKU (which, to be fair, is Conference USA's frontrunner and an NCAA Tournament contender) may be the best team Louisville's faced through seven games.
"A lot of people are saying we haven’t played anybody, a lot of people are saying maybe we aren’t deserving," the coach said Friday in Nashville. "I really don’t care. The only thing I care about is improving from our game today against Western Kentucky."
All things considered, of every other challenger for that top ranking, Louisville's next opponent just might have the best case. You'd be hard-pressed to find another team as hot as Michigan.
The Wolverines didn't just beat No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Gonzaga last week at the Battle 4 Atlantis – they dominated the competition, winning those two games by a combined 27 points. They're unranked now, but that won't be the case Monday. No other team in the country has a better pair of wins.
From Michigan: UM's upset of North Carolina was validation for Juwan Howard
Michigan has Louisville beat in the "quality wins" department, but you can't fault the Cardinals for taking care of business against the teams on their schedule so far. Akron was a scare late after the Cardinals dominated the first 30 minutes, but every other game has been a blowout. Tuesday night against a known contender like Michigan will be our best gauge yet for where Louisville stands against elite competition.
Still, it's December. Today's elite competition is tomorrow's bubble team.
"My job is for me to get (our players) to understand – we haven’t arrived," Mack said. "There’s no team that’s arrived. No team’s arrived."
It won't get much easier after Tuesday. Next up is an ACC clash with Pittsburgh on Friday at the Yum Center before the Cardinals head to New York next Tuesday for a showdown with 2018-19 national title runner-up Texas Tech. This season shifts gears this week.
Malik Williams had his best game of the season Friday, leading the effort to shut down star WKU center Charles Bassey. After a quiet second half against Akron, Jordan Nwora showed again why he's an AP All-American with 25 points. Mack didn't give his usual "Dwayne Sutton is a warrior" speech after the win, but that's only because it's a given at this point.
Louisville might not be a finished product yet, but today, the Cardinals are as deserving as anybody for that top ranking. Just ask WKU coach Rick Stansbury.
"It’s very obvious why they’ll be the No. 1 team in the country come Monday," he said Friday. "… I thought they did two things better than anybody else in the country. They’ve got multiple weapons, and they’ve got multiple big guys they can throw it to in the paint. There’s not a lot of teams that have those kind of things."
Lucas Aulbach can be reached at [email protected], 502-582-4649 or on Twitter @LucasAulbach. Support strong local journalism and subscribe: www.courier-journal.com/lucasa.