I got a Sense of Renewal at the First Open Football Practice of Spring

It took some time to process the Louisville football team’s loss to LSU and the awful way they ended the 2016 football season. The Cardinals would start the 2016 season with a lot of optimism and promise. But it wouldn’t end that way. There is an old cliché that says the third time is a charm… And although Coach Petrino finished the season with 9 wins and a 7th straight trip to a bowl game I don’t think his third season back as the head football coach at Louisville would be considered a charm. He finished last season with a lot more questions than answers about his football team. What had been a return full of praise and perceived success now mired by some failure and skepticism. The honeymoon is over.

But Spring is a time of renewal, and new growth and the signs of change are all around us. The same could be said for the Louisville football program. New coaches, new players stepping into key roles and an overall change in attitude seems to be the theme of the Cardinals Spring Football workouts. I got a real positive vibe being out on the practice fields on Friday afternoon for Louisville’s first open practice. There seems to be a renewed spirit along with more intensity overall and a greater attention to detail. And it’s not just the coaches who are leading the way. I noticed that the players were encouraging each other and holding each other accountable as well. That shows me that this coaching staff already has these guys buying in.

Here are a few other things that stood out to me:

The Louisville defensive unit had a lot of hop in their step on Friday afternoon. They weren’t just going through their reps and seemed like they were having some fun. I think new Defensive Coordinator Peter Sirmon has simplified things trying to make the defense more active instead of reactive. He and his assistants were really paying attention to detail but doing it in a way that their players better understood it. Or at least it seemed that way to me. Coach Sirmon has said that his players will set the depth chart. Just by being around this unit for a couple of hours it appeared that the message has been heard loud and clear. There are a few players who stood out. SR Safety Chucky Williams was active along with SR Linebacker Stacey Thomas, Junior Corner Jaire Alexander and Sophomore Corner Cornelius Sturghill. Some younger guys stepping up on Friday were Redshirt Freshman PJ Blue and Sophomore Linebacker Amonte Caban. There are a lot of studs on this side of the ball for the Cardinals. I really like this unit.

The Louisville Offensive line was horrible last season. There is not a nicer way to put it. They just completely stopped trying to block anyone in the Bowl game. There is footage of them literally side stepping a defensive lineman. If Louisville is ever to take the next step up Program wise, then this is an area that must be fixed and fixed fast. Enter new offensive line coach Mike Summers. Coach Summers hasn’t changed much since his last run in Louisville maybe a little greyer around the edges but the intensity is still the same. Watching this group on Friday I really like our size. Players like 6-7 315-pound SR Toriano Roundtree, 6-6 324-pound JR Lukayus McNeil, and 6-6 318-pound JR Geron Christian look the part. If they can learn some of that intensity and take on the identity of their new coach, we should see a big step up from last season.

Watching the offensive unit on Friday I can tell you that this team has a lot of talent at the skill positions and some size too. I could watch Lamar Jackson launch bombs to 6-6 JR Wide receiver Devante Peete all day. These guys tried that connection several times on Friday afternoon. Coach Petrino has several dimensions to his offense and again has the players to get it done at every level. I was most impressed with Redshirt Freshman Running Back Dae Williams. This kid doesn’t get rush yards he gets rumble yards. He and SR Running Back Jeremy Smith would be a great 1-2 punch. The play of the day was made by Sophomore Tight End Jordan Davis who had an impressive one handed grab for the completion. Wide Receivers coach Lonnie Galloway and Running Backs coach Kolby Smith are “Players Coaches”. They were right on the heels of their guys Friday. Smith was running through the gap with his guys making sure they ran every single play out. I think this will pay off this season. The Cardinal offense will be legit.

There was a lot of blame to go around last season but very little if any should land on the shoulders of QB Lamar Jackson. He had one of the most impressive individual performances in a season that won’t be duplicated for many generations. The only bad thing about that is that his team didn’t leave him with much choice. I think being surrounded by a solid team could really make his stock go up even more. There seems to be a big emphasis on using some of the other talent on this team and coach Petrino really spread the ball out on Friday afternoon. He had Lamar using his legs and his arm. Just watching and observing one practice I think we will see a more complete player this season out of our Heisman Trophy winner. I love seeing him hurdle players but it’s also fun to watch him throw those bombs.

It’s hard to really take in all that you want during just one of these practices but I did try to make my way around observing the things that I felt important to follow up on from last season. You’d have to search far to find someone who was more disappointed at how the 2016 season ended. But the program responded to that disappointment and positive change filled the spring air on Friday. I really like what I see and my optimism is thru the roof. I plan on heading back out to the practice fields on Tuesday the 28th for the second Open day. I would encourage you folks to do the same. Go Cards


A Journey to the NCAA Tournament that started with a Dunk in Middle School

One night back in November of 1988 at a Middle School gym in Owenton Kentucky a much younger version of myself was playing an 8th grade basketball game… the coach had just drawn up a play in which I would get the in-bounds pass and have a chance to score. My heart was pounding as I made my move and caught the ball. I remember spinning past the kid who was guarding me and breaking away in the open court as the crowd went wild.

I made the lay-up and began my celebration but immediately realized something wasn’t right. The reaction of coach Reynolds was odd and why wasn’t my team on this end of the floor with me…? You can imagine the horror when I figured out that I had just made a wide-open lay-up on the opponent’s end of the court. Turns out the crowd was going wild trying to get me to stop.

Fast forward to a night in November of 2011 in a Middle School gym… a 13 yr. old Carson Williams was playing an 8th grade basketball game when he came flying through the air and completed an alley-Oop dunk like you would see at the college level. That dunk would be the beginning of an incredible basketball journey for Carson Williams. That journey will come to a culmination in Indianapolis when Carson and his NKU team take on the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament Friday night.

I told you about my big middle school moment because that was more of the norm when it comes to the athletic prowess of a 13-yr. old where I grew up. Don’t get me wrong there have been a lot of good athletes come from Owen County but nothing like Carson Williams. You just don’t see too many 13yr old’s making plays like the one in the video above and there aren’t many 18-yr. old’s who could pull it off either.

In small rural areas, it’s hard sometimes for kids like Carson to get the attention they deserve. The AAU programs have really helped but it still isn’t easy to get on the right teams and get on the right courts. And when you do get on the right team and the right court you must take advantage of the opportunity.

Carson took advantage of the opportunity and dunked his way through the AAU ranks and landed a spot on the Lexington based Kentucky Travelers basketball team. The Travelers are a Nike sponsored AAU team who play in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League. Carson had his needle moving performance in AAU while at an event in Virginia back in May of 2014. That weekend Carson was 1-1 3pt, 22-38 FG 58%, 16-24 FT 67%, had 23 Rebs, 2 Assts, 3 Stls, 2 Blks, and 61 points. It was after this weekend in Virginia that scouts really started to take notice of the hometown kid.

There were several articles written that mentioned Carson’s AAU breakout weekend but probably none bigger than the ESPN Insider folks who called him one of the “Biggest Sleepers” of the class. In that article, they said:

Biggest sleeper
Carson Williams: He is a strong and athletic wing and could be a very skilled 4 at the next level depending on future team and scheme. He plays hard, can shoot to 19 feet and will dunk on you if you are not paying attention. He had 21 in Kentucky Travelers’ loss to Team United (N.C.). The 6-5 small forward can be a mid-major stud or a great role player at a high-major school in the 2016 class.

It was his time in the AAU that really helped him get the important notoriety but Carson Williams also dunked his way to a very successful run at Owen County high school setting records that will last generations. He helped his team win a lot of games and a lot of District championships including a few trips to the All-A State semifinals. With the help of Williams, the Rebels basketball team was considered one of the best in the state even ranked in the top 10 of some polls. Carson never got the chance to play in the state’s biggest game but he did win Kentucky’s highest basketball honor the title of “Mr. Basketball”.

This past summer Carson’s journey landed him in the Derby Festival Basketball Classic. It is one of the premiere all-star games in the country and has seen many greats come through it. Carson had a great showing at this event and was a semifinalist in the dunk contest. It was a great night of celebration for all that he had accomplished as a high school player. I was proud to tell the other media court-side that he was from my hometown.

Carson Williams decided to continue his basketball journey at Northern Kentucky University. And he has been that mid-major stud in his first college season that all those scouts said he would be. He earned Horizon League freshman of the week honors a few times and has become an important part of the Horizon League Tournament Champion Norse basketball team.

Carson said that he chose to go to Northern Kentucky to help build the newly Division 1 program into a dominate player in the Horizon League. He said that he wanted to help them get to the NCAA Tournament. In year number one its mission accomplished.

There are a lot of great college basketball players that fall short of the dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament. Friday night Carson Williams will be representing all the years of hard work and dedication that it takes to achieve such a goal while overcoming the odds of coming from such a rural area. It also takes a bit of luck. But good things happen to good people and you won’t find a better young man.

Carson will be the first player from Owen County to make it to the NCAA Tournament during the modern era and only the second ever. He will be representing all the folks that grew up there. Everyone has followed along on his journey and has a lot of pride for his accomplishments. One of the reasons he went to NKU was so his family, friends and community could come to his college games. It’s only about an hour from Owenton to Highland Heights as the crow flies.
Carson brought a lot of hometown spirit back to those Owen County school gyms and that spread throughout the community. It also spread to folks from there that live all over the country.

I reached out to Carson Williams and his family and asked them what it meant to be playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Carson’s Mother Heidi Williams:

“Some people questioned his decision to go to NKU but we felt like that with the new coach and the move to the Horizon league that it was a good fit and they may make it to the tournament but we never dreamed it would be this soon. It’s been very exciting and fun. He’s had a great deal of support from family, friends and Rebel Nation and I’m glad the community is so excited about the tournament. Carson has worked very hard for the past 14 years and it’s great to see him and his teammates get to enjoy this.”

NKU Freshman Carson Williams:

“Most every young basketball player dreams of playing in the NCAA tournament and I was no different. It means a lot to me to have that dream become a reality especially considering the countless hours of hard work that I’ve put in to help me get to this position. With that being said, no matter how good or popular the team we play is I don’t approach this as anything other than just another game.”

Many of the same folks that were in that Middle School gym the night Carson had that big dunk will be at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday night. And the folks who can’t make it will be tuned in to watch their hometown boy fulfilling yet another dream. That kid who put the ball in the wrong basket will be there too. I love being a Carson Williams fan and watching him play takes me back to my younger days. I didn’t have an ounce of the ability but at one time I did have a similar dream.

I wrote this week about the special moments we often see during March Madness. It is three weeks where real life dramas play out during a College Basketball Tournament. For Carson Williams, his family, his fans, Owen County and NKU Friday night will be that special moment. Good Luck Carson! Good Luck NKU!

March Madness is also about the Moments

College basketball fans all over the country are in a basketball frenzy. Making plans to go see their teams chase the dream, filling out their brackets and planning their excuse for missing work this week. It really is March Madness. But along with this Madness there are many special moments made.

We’ve all seen these moments and even been a part of them. It’s the occasion where real life becomes a part of the game. We all love to see our favorite team win but nothing is more compelling than to see some of these real life dramas play out during the NCAA Tournament. Moments when folks overcome real life adversity, moments of great personal triumph, moments that bring people together and moments that bring people real joy.

If you aren’t a Louisville Basketball fan chances are that you will forget who the 2013 National Champion was. But there isn’t a college basketball fan that will forget how that team rallied around one of their fallen brothers. The moment when they lowered the basket to let Kevin Ware cut that net folks all over the country were cutting it with him.

And as a fan how great was it to see Tim Henderson hit those three point shots. What a moment for that young man. And I’ll never forget how happy I was for Luke Hancock getting to play the best basketball of his life in front of his ailing father. And there wasn’t a father among us who couldn’t relate to the pride Mr. Siva had cheering for his son and how he had overcome his own adversity through his son’s faith. We all felt great joy in watching that team win a championship.

On Friday I’m looking forward to heading to Indianapolis for a college basketball smorgasbord. I’m going to watch four basketball games that will feature three different basketball teams from Kentucky. I’m also looking forward to that moment that Moment when my Cardinals make their return to the NCAA Tournament again after a post season ban and that moment when Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball NKU’s Carson Williams takes the NCAA Tourney floor for the first time. Carson is only the second player from my humble hometown of Owenton Kentucky to play in the Big Dance. That entire community and everyone from there have followed this young man’s journey. Friday will be a culmination of the pride we all have for him.

There is going to be a lot of great basketball played over the next three weeks. And there are going to be many more special moments made. Don’t get all caught up in the wins and losses of it all and miss out on some of the real life inspiration that can come from it. Don’t miss the “Feel Good” of it all. I wish each of you a great March Madness. Enjoy it! Go Cards!

Senior Day Salute…

We have reached the part of the college basketball season where teams are winding up the regular season and ramping up for the post season tournaments. Years of hard work hang in the balance as seniors across the country near the end of their college basketball careers, and programs all over the country are having their Senior Night/Day ceremonies. On Saturday, the University of Louisville will honor three players for their contributions to the program. On Saturday, seniors David Levitch, Mangok Mathiang and grad transfer Tony Hicks will lace em up for the last time in that locker room, will come charging out of that tunnel to the alma mater for the last time, and will get the love and admiration from the Yum Center crowd for the last time.

Ceremonies like on Saturday are part of the process that allows closure for the seniors and a passing of the torch to the underclassmen, but in successful programs like the University Louisville the tradition never graduates. This program is rich and vibrant because many groups of seniors have cared enough to give their very best. There are still many chapters that have yet to be written, but the 2017 basketball seniors have added to the outstanding tradition of the Louisville program. David and Mango have been a part of an AAC Regular Season Championship, AAC Tournament Championship, Sweet 16, Elite 8, and have helped the program win 104 games. Tony Hicks had some big shoes to fill following two great grad transfers from last season. He has battled injury and struggled to find his place but has kept at it and contributed in some wins this season. These guys aren’t done either as all will play a big part in the post season.

The walk-on spot at the University of Louisville has become synonymous with passion, heart and determination. Coach Pitino has used this roster spot to find local kids who have dreamed of playing for the Cardinals and give them the opportunity to fulfil that dream. David Levitch played at North Oldham high school and has said that Louisville is “where he always wanted to play” and that it was his dream school. He said that the best basketball advice given to him was “always work to get better”. He followed that advise and has got better every season and earned himself a scholarship. The effort that David has always displayed when he got his playing time is what has stood out to me. The young man has one gear and that is “go”. He is unselfish and the total team player. It has been fun watching him succeed.

A foot injury provided him a red-shirt year and it seems like Mango Mathiang has been on campus for 10 years. He has always been the guy on the team that provided a lighter side of things making his team-mates laugh. In the serious nature of high profile college athletics that is a necessary thing to have. He has had his ups and his downs and like with every player that comes through the program we have watched him grow up both as a person and a player. He has played an important role in a lot of wins. Two moments that stand out to me was the free-throw he hit in 14-15 to send the East Region Championship game into overtime and the last second shot he hit to beat #2 Virginia in the season finale that same year. Mango said that the best basketball advice given to him was “if you really love basketball, work hard and you will make it.” Well you made it Mango. It’s been fun to watch your journey.

I’m happy that I will again be a part of the Senior Day ceremonies at the University of Louisville and this will be my fourth year covering the event. It’s always a special day and Saturday will continue that tradition. Hope the Cardinals can get a big win over Notre Dame and send these guys out on a winning note. Go Cards!