Louisville basketball: Cards better off with injuries now than later

Malik Williams #5 of the Louisville Cardinals (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Malik Williams #5 of the Louisville Cardinals (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

The Louisville basketball team has been racking up injuries like its going out of style. But now is better than later.

Chris Mack has had a rough hand dealt to him before the season even began just a week ago. The Louisville basketball team has now lost four players due to injury in just as many games played.

The 2020 season was always supposed to be a season of turnover with graduate transfers Carlik Jones and Charles Minlend coming into the program as well as three true freshmen: Dre’ Davis, JJ Traynor, and Gabe Wiznitzer.

The Cardinals lost a bunch of key contributors from a year ago including Jordan Nwora (an NBA draft pick), Dwayne Sutton, Steven Enoch, Ryan McMahon, Darius Perry, and Fresh Kimble.

That’s a ton of production to lose for any team. But, it’s not like Chris Mack teams are churning out one-and-done players on a consistent basis. There were no sure-fire lottery picks returning or coming in as freshmen. This team was a general unknown.

The players assumed to make an impact were Jones, Minlend, Malik Williams, and David Johnson. All of the others were real question marks as far as expectations are concerned.

Prior to the season starting, the Cardinals were without two of the four players that were the virtually guaranteed impact guys. That’s bad. It looked like there may be a couple of losses to come in the “Louisville bubble” with Williams and Minlend out and I think that fans would have been fine with that being the result.

Then, Josh Nickelberry had an offseason surgery that carried over into the season. So, Louisville has been without three key players from the very start and were down to nine scholarship players before fans even got to see them take the floor for the first time.

Now, Louisville was thin with three freshmen off the bench who were presumably not going to be ready to play big roles in year one.

But they had to be ready. Well, at least two of them did.

Dre’ Davis has averaged 31 minutes per game and JJ Traynor has averaged 19. This is so important for these young guys and having it come at the very beginning of the season is a massive opportunity for them.

After two games, Louisville lost star sophomore guard-forward Sam Williamson due to a dislocated big toe on his right foot.

Gabe Wiznitzer is not at the point to which he can play important time. He has played a very limited amount of minutes through four games.

So with the loss of Williamson and Wiznitzer not developed enough to play, the Cardinals were left with a rotation of seven players with Dre’ Davis and JJ Traynor playing massive roles. The only upperclassman playing minutes over the course of the season has been Carlik Jones.

The rest have been freshman and sophomores.

Nobody wants to have one-third of the team out with injury in the early goings of any season. For a team like Louisville, losing these four could have been a real detriment to their chances of making the NCAA Tournament if things had gone badly.

But, now at 4-0, somehow this team is playing at about as high of a level as you would have expected if the entire team had been healthy.

With injuries piling up, it allows young players who would not have been given as much opportunity to get a ton of run in competitive game situations. That has paid off huge for the freshmen Davis and Traynor.

Davis just turned in his best performance in one of the early season’s biggest games with 21 points on 7-for-9 shooting. He is now averaging 12.5 points, 4 rebounds, and a block through the first four games.

Traynor has been a steady presence in his minutes averaging 7 points and 4 rebounds. Traynor was a player I thought would be stashed by the coaching staff until he could gain weight. Pressed into time, Traynor has performed.

Samuell Williamson is listed as day-to-day by Chris Mack while Josh Nickelberry’s status remains more uncertain.

Charles Minlend is scheduled as of now to return around mid-to-late December.

Malik Williams has the longest recovery of the four as his foot surgery is likely to sideline him until at least February.

With all four slated to return at different points of the season, Davis and Traynor will continue to get their minutes in addition to sophomore center Aidan Igiehon who is really just trying to figure out the fundamentals of the game on both sides of the floor.

What if these injuries occurred at the end of the season?

I think we would be witnessing a very different outlook on the season’s conclusion had injuries of this magnitude hit the team in, say, February or March. Dre’ Davis and JJ Traynor may not have gotten the minutes they would have needed early on to compete in the ACC and the NCAA Tournament at a high level against teams having 20-plus games under their belt.

Perhaps Davis and Traynor never really become a huge part of the rotation and they are thrown into the fray for impactful minutes when opponents are firing on all cylinders. That would have been a nightmare situation.

Davis and Traynor making their mistakes now is extremely beneficial for this team as they keep on winning. If they were making freshman mistakes in March, they would be far more magnified with the potential that a mistake at any moment could cost you the whole season.

If the Cardinals lose a couple of non-conference games or an early ACC game because one of the freshman made a mistake, you can live with that knowing that the young guys are growing and getting better because of this opportunity they have been granted.

When March comes around, this team could be 11 players deep with tons of contributors who are able to do so because of the minutes they got in late November and early December.

Chris Mack and the coaching staff have to be almost as impressed as the fanbase seems to be through the first few games of the year. If the young players can keep up their high level of play, this could be one of the deepest teams in the ACC.

Next. Louisville basketball: 3 takeaways from the win over WKU. dark