How Louisville took a step forward vs. UNC without suspended senior Malik Williams

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

Louisville needed buckets. It needed boards. 

The Cardinals men’s basketball team entered its Tuesday game against North Carolina missing bunches of both thanks to interim head coach Mike Pegues’ decision to indefinitely suspend starting center Malik Williams

Louisville had lost its leader in points and rebounds. 

But even in losing to the Tar Heels 90-83 in a controversial overtime finish, the Cardinals looked like they found something, too. 

Louisville (11-11, 5-7 ACC) needed someone to score with Williams’ 10 points per game out of the lineup, and El Ellis answered. He poured in a career-high 25, all in the second half and overtime. The Cards needed guys to grab rebounds with Williams’ 8.7 per game absent, and Matt Cross crashed the glass for a career-best 15. 

And though all that pitching in didn’t help them pull out a win, the Cards and their coach saw encouraging signs with their main man missing. 

“Obviously we felt like, ‘Damn,’ because no matter who it is, we consider ourself a close team…,” Cross said. “It sucked not to have (Williams) out there, but pretty much Coach Pegues does a good job of keeping us moving forward.” 

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It’s unclear if the Cards will keep moving forward without Williams, and if so for how long. 

In announcing the suspension on his radio show Monday, Pegues said “it’s one game for now,” but said afterward that disciplining Williams for what he called a failure to meet the standard Louisville sets for its players has “been a long time coming.”

If Williams wants to return, Pegues said, there will be stipulations. 

“I think it starts with us sitting down and talking,” Pegues told the Courier Journal on Monday. "Probably have to get his family involved. I think it’s a heart-to-heart conversation where’s there’s some stipulations in place so that everybody understands that if there’s any regression whatsoever, then it’ll become a permanent thing. Obviously we don’t want it to get to that, but we have to move forward with the right guys that are about the right things.”

And in the first game with Williams missing, Pegues liked what he saw. 

With Williams suspended and backup center Roosevelt Wheeler in concussion protocols, Pegues used backup center Gabe Wiznitzer for a season-high 10 minutes against North Carolina — which leads the ACC in rebounding margin — and center Armando Bacot. 

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The 6-foot-11, 245-pound Wiznitzer hadn’t played in a game since logging four minutes in a home win against Southeastern Louisiana on Dec. 14, a stretch of 12 games on the bench. His appearance against North Carolina was his fourth of the season. 

Pegues said after his postgame news conference he was going to grab Wiznitzer “and give him a big hug.”

“To sit that long and then have to go into the game and guard the best big man in the league (in Bacot) is not easy,” Pegues said. “And I am thrilled and excited that he got out there and did the job that his teammates and I all know that he can do. I was so proud of him. It takes a lot — a lot — of character to be able to go out and do that.”

Louisville's Jae'Lyn Withers drives to the basket against North Carolina's Armando Bacot during action at the YUM Center. Feb. 1, 2022

Jae'Lyn Withers pitched in, too. He scored 12 points and "proved worthy being able to deal with Bacot a little bit in the post." 

None of that stopped Bacot from racking up 22 rebounds. But Wiznitzer and Withers worked. And Cross did his part, finishing with four offensive rebounds and 11 on the defensive end. 

“Usually I just kind of take my guy out of the play, and once I do that someone else can go get the rebound, because I usually guard a (power forward), a main rebounder,” Cross said. “But today I figured I got to hit and get in there just because we’re missing our leading rebounder.”

They were missing their leading scorer, too, but Ellis looked capable of taking on a bigger role in that regard. 

Though he’s been inconsistent this season, the junior-college transfer has scored a combined 43 points in two games since Pegues took over as interim head coach in the wake of Louisville’s separation agreement with Chris Mack. 

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The 6-3 backup guard “has total carte blanche” in the offense if he can “be responsible with it,” Pegues said. 

“I feel really good about that,” Ellis said. “Ever since I got here, Coach Pegues has really had confidence in me, and I really appreciate that from him. And really confidence in all our guys. Like, everybody’s just going out there and playing free. As long we’re making the right plays, we’re playing our role on defense, he gives us that freedom. That’s what you want in a coach.” 

Louisville's El Ellis drives to the basket against North Carolina's.  R.J. Davis. Feb. 1, 2022

What Pegues wanted was to “celebrate our guys,” even in a loss. After the game, Pegues said he wanted to keep his discussion of Williams to a minimum and said the fifth-year senior’s absence didn’t change much strategically.

But he hoped it altered how the Cardinals see themselves moving forward with or without Wiliams. 

“I knew that we could come out here and win a game against Carolina without Malik Williams,” Pegues said. “I knew that. Unfortunately it didn’t happen because of some things down the stretch, but I hope they know that know that now. I hope they know that ‘Hey, we’re pretty damn good if we do the little things right and we stay together.’ Because it looked pretty good to me.”