University of Louisville

Top recruits like Chris Mack, but there are still some 'questions' about Louisville

Is Chris Mack the Louisville coach who can finally reverse the hold Kentucky has long had on the modern men’s basketball rivalry between the Wildcats and Cardinals?
Is Chris Mack the Louisville coach who can finally reverse the hold Kentucky has long had on the modern men’s basketball rivalry between the Wildcats and Cardinals? Associated Press

A few days ago, five-star basketball recruit Keion Brooks was asked about his level of interest in the Louisville Cardinals and expressed some trepidation.

“Speaking for myself, I’m just unclear on the direction right now,” Brooks told the Herald-Leader at USA Basketball camp in Colorado Springs. “With all the things that are going on with the FBI (investigation), I’m just not really sure what’s going on.”

It should be no surprise, then, that when Brooks announced his trimmed-down list of 10 schools Sunday night, U of L was not on it.

Brooks — a 6-foot-7 small forward from Indiana and the No. 9 overall prospect in the 247Sports rankings for the class of 2019 — had nothing but good things to say about new Cards head coach Chris Mack, who took the job in late March after a successful nine-year run in charge of the Xavier Musketeers.

Mack had tried to recruit Brooks to Xavier early in the process, giving up hope when it became clear that the talented prospect would become one of the most coveted recruits in his class, likely to end up at one of the biggest programs in the country.

Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan State and UCLA were just a few of the top schools chasing his commitment — all ended up on his top-10 list Sunday night — and Mack thought, when he took the Louisville job, that he might be able to get back in the race.

It turns out the stain from the Rick Pitino era — wracked with scandal, particularly at the end — might take a bit longer to overcome than Mack originally hoped.

Brooks said he would have to ask “more questions” of Louisville than other schools on his list due to the continued fallout of the federal investigation into college basketball, a probe which ultimately cost Pitino and athletics director Tom Jurich their jobs following the circumstances of Brian Bowen’s recruitment (as well the scandals that came in the years before).

It also derailed both a promising 2017-18 season and a possibly epic 2018 recruiting class.

With Pitino and Bowen, the Cards would’ve been a Final Four contender last year. They missed the NCAA Tournament.

If Pitino had still been in charge, the Cards also might’ve put together their best group of recruits in decades.

At the time of the initial federal report that mentioned Bowen’s recruitment as part of the probe, Louisville already had commitments from top-50 recruits Anfernee Simons and Courtney Ramey, and the Cardinals were considered favorites for eventual McDonald’s All-Americans Romeo Langford and Moses Brown.

All of those players ended up elsewhere.

In fact, with acting head coach David Padgett hampered by the uncertainty of his future and Mack not coming in until very late in the 2018 cycle, the Cardinals landed zero scholarship-level high school commitments for this year’s recruiting class.

U of L did get a pledge from class of 2019 shooting guard Josh Nickelberry — the No. 54 overall prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings — a couple of weeks ago, the first high school player to commit to Mack’s Louisville program.

That’s a good start, but the Cards will need more.

Mack has cast a wide net of scholarship offers in his short time as U of L’s head coach, but a glance at the five-star prospects in the 2019 class doesn’t yield any likely blockbuster commitments in the Cards’ near future.

Five-star point guard Ashton Hagans committed to Kentucky a couple of weeks after his scholarship offer from Mack.

Five-star combo guard Jalen Lecque has a relatively new U of L offer but didn’t list the Cardinals among his favorites. Brooks has obviously cut them from contention.

Matthew Hurt — another top prospect who Mack recruited at Xavier and has rekindled a relationship with at Louisville — is the No. 5 player in the class.

The Minnesota native was actually set to visit U of L’s campus on a three-school trip — UK and Indiana were the others — last fall when news of the federal investigation came down. Hurt made it to Lexington, but skipped Louisville on his way to Bloomington.

“After the whole situation, everybody thought their program was going to go downhill,” he told the Herald-Leader at USA camp.

U of L is now back on his list.

“They had a great hire, and I think Chris Mack is going to change their program around,” Hurt said. “I think in my class he’s going to get some top guys. They lost some 2018 recruits, but I think they’re going to get some key guys in my grade.”

That’s a rosier outlook than Brooks’ take, but Hurt also acknowledged that he’s not closely following what’s going on with the changes in the college basketball landscape as a result of the federal probe or what the uncertainty could mean for the immediate futures of the programs involved.

“Personally, I don’t,” he said. “My dad does. Our AAU program does, for sure. I don’t pay attention to that and just keep going.”

At this point, Louisville is not seen as a likely destination for Hurt anyway. Kansas is considered by many to be the favorite, with UK, Duke, North Carolina and Minnesota (where his brother plays) all getting more prominent mentions on the sidelines of USA camp.

That’s likely to be the common theme for Louisville and the top recruits in this 2019 cycle. They like Mack. They like the fans and the facilities. The latest scandal might just be a little too recent in their minds.

“It’s a great program and a historic team,” said Kira Lewis, another player who has risen to five-star status recently and has a new offer from Mack. “I feel like the new coach coming in, he’s going to make them even better.

“I know they had some ups and some downs, but now that there’s a new staff there, I don’t look at that.”

Lewis, like most of the other five-stars the Herald-Leader talked to, didn’t mention U of L among the schools at the top of his list, however.

Mack does seem well-positioned for others in the 2019 class.

Trinity guard David Johnson — No. 111 in the 247Sports composite rankings — was committed to the previous staff and is widely expected to ultimately end up with the Cards once again.

U of L also has the edge on the Crystal Ball pages of North Carolina power forward Jaelyn Withers — No. 74 in the composite rankings — and unranked center Jason Jitoboh.

Those would be good additions to the program and beneficial to the Cardinals’ future, but it’ll likely take a little bit longer before Mack can successfully pull from players from the very top of the rankings.

Brooks’ list is the latest example of that, and his honesty last week about the situation might be a sign.

“Me and Coach Mack had a good relationship when he was at Xavier,” he said. “But he kind of stopped recruiting me because he felt like I was too big or whatever. Now that he’s at a bigger stage, he’s really going hard trying to get me.

“I just have to have some of those questions answered.”