Louisville was supposed to suffer, right. The Cardinals were supposed to pay penance for the NCAA misdeeds that put basketball on probation, Rick Pitino in Greece and the program on thin ice. Instead, U of L is skating right along. So what happened?
Chris Mack is what happened. From the time Louisville AD Vince Tyra lured Xavier’s head coach to re-boot the Redbirds, U of L’s period of purgatory has been practically painless and darn near entertaining with a full fan buy-in.
“It’s not hard to buy in,” said Mike Rutherford, founder of U of L fan site Card Chronicle. “when the man has backed up everything he’s been selling so far.”
With Kentucky in town Saturday, the Cards were supposed to be rebuilding. Instead, they’re 9-3 with a win over Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Given their uncertain NCAA future, they were supposed to struggle recruiting. Instead, their class of 2019 is ranked No. 5 by 247Sports.
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“When you factor in the circumstances and obstacles in place, he’s done a tremendous job,” said 247Sports recruiting analyst Evan Daniels. “Not only on the court with the current team but from a recruiting standpoint, as well.”
Inheriting a depleted roster, Mack brought in transfers Christen Cunningham from Samford, Khawn Fore from Richmond and Akoy Agau from SMU. That trio complemented holdovers Jordan Nwora, Steven Enoch, Dwayne Sutton, Darius Perry, Malik Williams, V.J. King and Ryan McMahon. Of those, only King averaged more than six points per game last season for a 20-13 team under interim coach David Padgett. Now, Nwara is averaging 17.8 and 8.5 rebounds. Sutton is averaging 9.7 points and 6.2 rebounds. Enoch is at 9.2 and 4.6.
“Personally, I don’t think I’ve played for a coach who has been so intense in terms of always wanting us to play hard and always wanting us to give maximum effort all the time,” Nwora said last week. “And if he sees you’re not giving that, he’s going to be on you right away.”
“Mack said his teams at U of L would be tough. This one has been unquestionably tough,” Rutherford said. “He said they’d execute in the half court. They have been executing in the half court He said they’d surprise people and be an NCAA Tournament team. So far they’ve certainly looked like an NCAA Tournament team.”
Louisville fans like what they see. “It’s a total buy-in. Much more than I ever thought,” said Drew Deener, who hosts the morning radio show on ESPN 680. “I think fans were craving a direction and win or lose, the program is in one direction. Through no fault of any player or coach, last year was an extended awkward date. This year feels like the first step in a process.”
“I think it’s almost a good thing that Louisville fans went through last season,” Rutherford said. “If there had been no gap between Rick Pitino and Chris Mack, the comparison between the two would be non-stop. Instead, U of L fans got a chance to see what life is like when you don’t have an elite coach with a full off-season to implement his system.”
That’s no knock on Padgett, said Rutherford, who did yeoman’s work in an impossible situation. But Mack arrived with a track record, having taken Xavier to the Sweet 16 four times and the Elite Eight once in his nine seasons as lead Musketeer. He also came with a plan.
“I thought he did a very good job on the recruiting trail of really targeting the right guys,” Daniels said. “He put a plan in place to get the right guys on campus before the July evaluation period. That helped them significantly when they got them back to campus.”
To be sure, Mack is just getting started. It’s a long season and the coach was not a happy camper last Friday when his Cards struggled in the first half before beating Robert Morris 73-59. A loaded ACC schedule is right around the corner. First, of course, there’s Kentucky.
“It’s a big game. Excited about it,” Mack said Friday. “(But) we’ll worry about Kentucky after Christmas. They’ve got a really good team.”
To the surprise of many, Louisville has a good one, too.
No. 16 Kentucky at Louisville
When: 2 p.m.