Mark Story

Chris Mack’s task: Don’t let Louisville become the next Indiana

In nine years as head coach at Xavier, Chris Mack went 215-97 with eight NCAA Tournament appearances.
In nine years as head coach at Xavier, Chris Mack went 215-97 with eight NCAA Tournament appearances. Associated Press

For a moment, let’s imagine the Rick Pitino-Karen Sypher sexual tryst had not turned into an extortion attempt complete with an embarrassing legal trial.

Let’s pretend Andre McGee and Co. never used sex parties with strippers and escorts in the University of Louisville men’s basketball dorm as a recruiting inducement for high school boys.

Finally, let’s make believe the FBI does not have wiretap evidence of a then-Cardinals assistant in the room while a plan to direct a six-figure payment to the family of recruit Brian Bowen was allegedly hatched with representatives of Adidas.

In a world where none of that happened, Chris Mack would still be a good hire by U of L to fill the head coaching chair from which Denny Crum and Pitino each reached the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Chris Mack cutting nets
Chris Mack threw a piece of net after Xavier beat Providence 84-74 Feb. 28 to clinch the Big East regular-season title. Aaron Doster Associated Press

That U of L was able to get the now-former Xavier head man to come to The Ville after years of scandal is a coup for Louisville and its new athletics director, Vince Tyra, the former Kentucky Wildcats baseball pitcher.

In nine years as head coach at Xavier, Mack went 215-97 and took the Musketeers to eight NCAA Tournaments. Four times, Mack, 48, coached his alma mater to the NCAA tourney round of 16, including an Elite Eight trip in 2017.

Of the realistic possibilities — Brad Stevens, Jay Wright and Billy Donovan were not walking through that door — Mack is likely the best U of L could have done.

Going forward, Mack’s task is as straightforward as it can be: Navigate Louisville through an uncertain future without allowing the Cardinals program to slip from elite status as has happened at Indiana.

IU is the poster child for how a once-great basketball program — in the Hoosiers’ case, one with five NCAA titles — can slip into an enduring cycle of mediocrity. Counting this season’s 16-15 record under first-year Hoosiers head coach Archie Miller, Indiana has now produced double-digit losses in 19 of its past 24 seasons.

Archie Miller
Counting this season’s 16-15 mark under first-year head coach Archie Miller, Indiana has had double-digit losses 19 times in the past 24 seasons. Jeremy Hogan AP

Mack comes to Louisville at a time of obvious program vulnerability.

Already on NCAA probation because of the strippers/escorts for recruits scandal, U of L could be facing years of uncertainty as the FBI investigation of financial improprieties in college hoops recruiting winds through the courts. The federal government has asked the NCAA to stand down on investigating rules violations revealed in the college hoops corruption probe until the FBI’s work is fully done.

That means Louisville may not have resolution for years on the Cardinals’ involvement with representatives of Adidas in an alleged plan to pay the family of recruit Brian Bowen $100,000 in exchange for the player picking U of L.

Until that case is resolved, one would think Louisville would be the easiest school in the country to “negative recruit” against.

That Mack was willing to come to U of L anyway would seem a vote of confidence that Louisville can get players in spite of the uncertainty.

Rick Pitino and Denny Crum
Rick Pitino, left, and Denny Crum are the only two men to hold the University of Louisville men’s basketball head coaching job on a full-time basis since the 1971-72 season. John Sommers II Lexington Herald-Leader

The fact that the ex-Xavier head man arrives at Louisville from a school where evaluating talent and developing players are necessary components of success should bode well for U of L in the immediate future.

It will be interesting how Mack’s arrival affects Louisville’s intrastate rivalry with Kentucky. The coach went 6-3 at Xavier against crosstown rival Cincinnati.

At Louisville, if Mack could just break even against UK, it would be a vast improvement on what Crum (7-13), Pitino (6-12) and last season’s Cardinals interim head coach, David Padgett (0-1), have done against the Wildcats.

David Padgett
Former Louisville interim head coach David Padgett paced in front of the Cardinals’ bench during U of L’s 90-61 loss to Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Dec. 29. Louisville is 13-26 against Kentucky in the modern rivalry (since 1983) between the schools. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

One area where Mack could stick a thumb in UK’s eye from the get-go is in-state recruiting. Under John Calipari, Kentucky emphasizes national recruiting and bringing future NBA players to Lexington.

There isn’t much NBA potential available in the commonwealth, and UK presently has no scholarship player from Kentucky.

However, there are players produced in-state who can be contributors on winning college teams.

At Xavier, Mack successfully recruited former Eastern High School star Remy Abell (as a transfer from Indiana) and ex-Taylor County star Quentin Goodin. Jake Walter, a 7-foot center for state champion Covington Catholic, was part of Mack’s 2018 Xavier recruiting class.

From a strong class of high school juniors in Kentucky, Mack should live with University Heights Academy guard KyKy Tandy and Trinity guard David Johnson.

A down-to-earth type with an approachable public persona, Mack should help Louisville start to heal its fractured fan base.

After the post-FBI scandal firings of Pitino and ex-U of L Athletics Director Tom Jurich, one faction of the U of L fandom has seemed “bitter enders” unwilling to let go of the past.

Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino was fired as Louisville head coach before the 2017-18 season began. Timothy D. Easley Associated Press

That is similar to what happened at Indiana following the fall of Bob Knight.

When Chris Mack’s tenure as Louisville head man ends, we will know he has succeeded if no one is then making comparisons of the Cardinals program to what has gone on the past 24 years at Indiana.

New Louisville basketball coach Chris Mack talks about his relationship with Kentucky coach John Calipari.

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