His Tuesday press conference lasted seven minutes and Chris Mack had one more question to ask about his Louisville basketball team’s attack, his defense, or Wake Forest, his opponent on Wednesday.
Hoops hadn’t really come up.
That’s the nature of a program that comes out of a COVID-19 hiatus that left the Cardinals inactive last week and postponed a game against rival Kentucky.
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“You want to talk about protocols and COVID and masking, we can keep going down that line, but it’s really sickening right now,” Mack said. “We’re in season three of college basketball and dealing with this. And I know it’s everyone’s job to talk about it, but if you keep seeing ‘entering protocol’ popping up on your timeline — let’s talk about the game.”
But there’s really no mention of the Cardinals (7-4, 1-0 ACC) and Demon Deacons (11-1) without going into the state of the Louisville program first.
So we get to the game. First an attempt to answer the more pressing questions as the Cards return from a layoff:
What is the status of the Louisville squad?
Louisville will have “almost everyone” available against Wake Forest, Mack said, but did not specify further.
The game will drop eight days after U of L announced a program shutdown due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests in the program and seven days after the Cardinals played against the UK.
During that time, Mack said, Louisville had “several” symptomatic players, though he didn’t elaborate.
Malik Williams, the only player to miss Louisville’s most recent game — December 18 in Western Kentucky — due to COVID-19 protocols, has been back since the Cardinals resumed training on Sunday. He starts Wednesday. Other players are in “different stages” of their return, Mack said.
“So even though they’re released on game day and they’re free to be available, in some cases you’re in eight or nine days without doing anything from cardio to exercise,” Mack said. “So while they may be available, they may look a little different. Their availability may not be that great.”
Is this going to resemble last season’s return from the COVID break?
Last season, the COVID-19 protocols forced Louisville into two extended pauses. After the first, the Cardinals traveled to Wisconsin and lost to the Badgers 85-48. Louisville’s first game after the second break was a 99-54 loss at North Carolina.
Mack said those breaks came under “a lot of different circumstances.” For starters, U of L was 18 days between games during last December’s break and had a 19-day break between games during the February break. The Wake Forest game comes 11 days after this Louisville team lost at WKU.
In an effort to break last season’s post-pause trend, Louisville focused hard on conditioning this week. Guard Jarrod West said the Cards “just wanted to make sure we got up and down and run.”
The Cardinals trained hard on Sunday night, Mack said, and had two training sessions Monday focused on getting players’ legs under them.
“That gives us the best chance of being very competitive against a very good Wake Forest team,” Mack said. “And make no mistake, we play to win, and I believe we can. But we will have to play really well, and we didn’t play well in those two experiences (after breaks last season).”
How good is this Wake Forest team really?
Quite good. Or at least that’s what the computers think.
The Demon Deacons are in a respectable 66th place in Ken Pomeroy’s ranking on KenPom.com, 14 places below Lousville, giving KenPom a 66% chance of winning the game.
The NCAA’s NET rankings like Wake Forest even more, ranking the Demon Deacons 37th coming in Tuesday night.
The only blemish on Wake Forest’s record is a 75-61 loss at a neutral venue for LSU. The Deacons are led by the transfer of Oklahoma’s Alondes Williams, who averages 21 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists and who Mack says is “by far the best passer we’ve played all year.”
Will Louisville and Kentucky Find a Makeup Date?
If you’re looking for a percentage, Mack said on Tuesday he has “no idea.” He echoed what he and Kentucky coach John Calipari said last week that finding a makeup game will depend on which future games the two teams have to postpone due to other teams’ COVID problems.
Even then, Mack said, a makeup would depend on “being able to make that game a reality in such a short period of time.”
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West called it “frustrating” not to play Kentucky last week, and Mack made it clear that he was aware of criticism that suggested the Cardinals were dodging the game.
“To be told we didn’t want to play against Kentucky or we avoided them — it’s like we’re in bigger trouble than if we have guys who can’t practice for eight or nine days,” Mack said. “It’s a really good NET game for us. It’s an incredible rivalry. Guys get really excited to play the game. But we couldn’t. And I don’t know how to make it up”
Are breaks in the future a problem?
It is likely that more games will be affected. Georgia Tech, which hosts Louisville on Saturday, went on hiatus earlier this week and postponed Wednesday’s game against Syracuse.
In line with new CDC guidelines, the ACC announced on Monday a change to its quarantine rules, reducing the 10-day isolation time for a vaccinated person with a positive test.
A quarantine can end when an asymptomatic individual has two negative tests from samples taken 24 hours apart; or at least seven days have passed since the first positive test, the individual’s symptoms are improving and the individual has one negative test within 24 hours of being cleared.
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Mack, who has said his team was 100% vaccinated, said last week that several Cardinals had been given booster shots. He said Tuesday that “a few more” have gotten the booster in the past week.
“Knock on wood, I don’t feel like between guys who have gotten sick, who have contracted it and guys who have been strengthened. I don’t think we’ll be shutting down programs from now on, which is a good thing, but it’s certainly not a certainty” Mack said. “But I feel like we’ve got enough guys who’ve had it or got the boost that we’re in a really good place.”