LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For whatever reason, Michigan’s shots weren’t falling.
Whether it was because of the atmosphere — a sea of white packed inside the KFC Yum! Center — the pressure that accompanied their newly-acquired No. 4 ranking or simply the length and activity of Louisville’s defense, the Wolverines just couldn’t buy a basket.
After going 2-for-18 from the field in the opening 12 minutes, the Michigan men’s basketball team trailed, 18-5.
In enemy territory, playing the top-ranked team in the country, the Wolverines (7-1) couldn’t overcome their slow start, dropping their first game of the season, 58-43, to the Cardinals (8-0).
Michigan’s offense looked disjointed from tipoff. Louisville’s length and physicality bothered both the Wolverines’ ball-handlers and their bigs. The paint was practically off-limits as the Cardinals’ bigs — specifically Steven Enoch and Dwayne Sutton — contested or completely rejected what seemed like every interior attempt.
On the perimeter, senior point guard Zavier Simpson and junior guard Eli Brooks struggled to initiate the offense. Michigan only ended the first half with six turnovers, but Louisville’s guards disrupted the Wolverines’ offensive flow frequently.
“I felt like Zavier was slipping all over the place, losing his dribble a little bit,” said Louisville coach Chris Mack. “That’s something you don’t see on the tape. He’s a guy we have a ton of respect for. Steven (Enoch) and Malik (Williams) did a great job keeping him out of the lane.”
Junior forward Isaiah Livers, who had arguably been Michigan’s most consistent scorer so far this season avergaing 17 points per game entering the contest, couldn’t get anything going either. Occasionally trying to elevate over a double-team, Livers went 1-for-8 in the first half.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, Louisville also struggled to score. Just when the Cardinals were on the verge of breaking the game open, their offense stagnated, finishing at 32.3 percent shooting in the first half.
As a result, even after an abysmal 20 minutes, Michigan only trailed 28-18.
“It was definitely positive,” Livers said. “We weren’t going to sit there and dwell at halftime about shots that should’ve went in. (Michigan coach Juwan Howard) just told us to come back out and keep taking the same shots and if they fall, they fall.”
That 10-point deficit was trimmed to just four moments into the second half.
Four quick points from senior center Jon Teske and a baseline jumper by freshman forward Franz Wagner certainly got the attention of the now-flustered Louisville faithful. Maybe they did have a game on their hands after all.
As the half went on, though, forward Jordan Nwora allayed their concerns. The Cardinals’ leading man — who ended the night with 22 points — tallied two straight baskets on consecutive possessions with strong drives to the rim.
“(Nwora’s) a great player,” Howard said. “He was picked as a preseason All-American and deservingly so, with his skill-level, his size and the way he competes out there.”
Lamarr Kimble, a graduate transfer who had played for Michigan associate coach Phil Martelli at St. Joseph’s, also pitched in with a running layup.
In the blink of an eye, Louisville had restored a double-digit advantage over the Wolverines.
Michigan’s offense was far too inconsistent to mount another significant run. Teske, who finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, was the most reliable option down the stretch. But, his output alone was never going to be enough for the Wolverines.
The nail in the coffin came with 3:35 left in the game. Off a turnover by Simpson, the Cardinals pushed the ball up the floor, eventually finding Nwora on the block. As he had done all game, Nwora elevated, unperturbed by the Michigan defender, to finish an and-one layup.
The crowd went into a frenzy and the Wolverines went home humbled.
“It’s good that we get the experience of going on the road and competing at a high level,” Howard said. “(Louisville) is the No. 1 team in the country. We’re not making excuses for it — but they’re good. They’re good for a reason.”