LOUISVILLE — As always, guard play will be critical in No. 3 Louisville's showdown with No. 19 Kentucky on Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena. Which brings us immediately to the subject of David Johnson.
One of the questions about the Cardinals (11-1) that seems to be most on the minds of Louisville fans heading into the game revolves around whether the heralded Trinity High School product will see more action at point guard than he has so far after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
Despite making only modest contributions in his mostly brief appearances in eight games, the 6-foot-5 freshman guard has already become a favorite among the KFC Yum! Center fans, who applaud enthusiastically when he walks to the scoring table to check into a game and they're eager to see more of him.
The performance of Louisville's point guards — starter Darius Perry and backup Fresh Kimble — has been a focus of criticism all season, with Johnson being been looked upon as the eventual savior at that position.
Fans have become accustomed this decade to dominant point guards like Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, as well as less dominant yet still efficient backcourt scorers and distributors Quentin Snider, Trey Lewis and Christen Cunningham.
U of L coach Chris Mack has raved about Johnson's potential and has gradually increased his playing time. Johnson has logged 29 minutes in the last two games, against Eastern Kentucky and Miami (Ohio), 11 more than his total in the previous six.
Still, Mack has been cautious, and he may be reluctant to throw Johnson to the wolves for very long against UK, considering it would be his baptism against elite competition, and in front of nearly 21,000 hostile fans to boot.
In U of L's last game, a 70-46 win over Miami, Johnson played 12 minutes, getting four points and two rebounds but no assists. He had one turnover. Perry started and played 23 minutes with eight points, five assists and two turnovers. Kimble logged 16 minutes, with three points, two rebounds and zero assists or turnovers.
Mack called Perry's play "terrific" on defense and a "pest" on offense, even though he made just 3-of-10 shots.
"David, probably the same song and dance for him for awhile — some good, some not so good," Mack said.
On the season, Perry is averaging 23.2 minutes, 5.8 points, 4.6 assists, 2.3 turnovers and 2.0 rebounds while shooting 43.1%, including 29.6% (8-27) from 3-point range. Kimble's numbers are 18.3 minutes, 4.3 points, 2.9 assists, 1.4 turnovers, 1.3 rebounds, 34.1% and 21.4% (3-14). Johnson has averaged 7.4 minutes, 3.3 points, 0.5 assists, 0.6 turnovers and 1.3 rebounds. He has taken only 11 shots, hitting eight.
Johnson acknowledged prior to the Miami game that the fast pace of the college game has been an adjustment but added that his transition from high school hoops has been more about a learning curve than any problems overcoming his injury.
"I think it's all really a mental adjustment for me, getting used to playing with some of the players I haven't really played with," he said. "Only been on the court a couple of months with them, so I need to get to know how they're playing, their tendencies and so forth. From a physical standpoint, I don't think (the injury) set me back that much. The only thing that has stood out to me is the pace of the game; it's just up and down, stuff like that. I feel like I need to adjust to that better."
It wasn't something he volunteered, but in answer to a question, Johnson admitted that playing in two- to five-minute spurts, it isn't easy to get accustomed to the pace or get into any kind of flow.
"It's a little difficult for me, but that's one of the things you have to adjust to," he said. "If you're out there, you'd better make the best of your time."
That will be Johnson's goal against the Wildcats, and it's not inconceivable that he could be a difference-maker if Perry and Kimble run into trouble against Ashton Hagans and Co.
For now, though, Perry remains the starting point guard and the one who will probably be on the court the longest against UK. And although the 6-2 junior's defense is important, he knows he also needs to take advantage of scoring opportunities.
Against Miami he was 3-of-10, and the Redhawks were virtually ignoring him to focus their attention on Jordan Nwora and Ryan McMahon on the perimeter.
"I feel like I do some good things for me team on defense, but I've got to make some shots," Perry said. "They (Miami) weren't even guarding me most of the game."
The Cats might take the same approach, daring Perry to prove them wrong.