Chris Mack embraces challenge at scandal-plagued Louisville
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Chris Mack expected big changes when he left a school coming off a NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeding for scandal-plagued program with a rich basketball tradition.
Louisville’s first-year coach hit the ground running after leaving Xavier, attracting several transfers to supplement the Cardinals’ reserve holdovers. Mack’s challenge will be melding them into a cohesive rotation he hopes can be competitive.
“We’ve got a lot to learn, but I’ve seen a lot of growth in our team over the last two-and-a-half, three weeks,” Mack said during Friday’s media day. “There’s a lot more to come, but the attitude’s been great. I think our guys are improving, and their willingness to improve has been really impressive.
“We have one of the toughest schedules in the entire country, so our resiliency will be tested, our ability will be tested. And that’s a good thing.”
Mack, 48, takes over Louisville after going 215-97 in nine seasons at Xavier with eight NCAA Tournament appearances. The Musketeers went 29-6 last season and earned their first No. 1 tournament seeding before losing in the second round to Florida State.
Louisville hired Mack in late March to replace interim coach David Padgett, who led the team to a 22-14 finish and the NIT quarterfinals. Padgett replaced Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, who was fired for cause last October in the wake of the school’s involvement in a federal corruption investigation of college basketball .
Mack said he has followed the ongoing trial in New York and will deal with any possible NCAA scrutiny when it happens. Right now, he said “I only want to make sure we’re ready to go in the opener” on Nov. 8 against Nicholls State.
Louisville has faced an uphill battle toward that end.
Besides losing four of its top five scorers and nearly 23 combined rebounds per game, the Cardinals also lost a lot of size and length. Junior wing V.J. King (8.6 points per game), guards Darius Perry and Dwayne Sutton and 6-foot-11 sophomore Malik Williams are back, but Mack spent his early months filling openings with seasoned veterans.
The Cardinals landed graduate transfers guards such as Christen Cunningham (Samford) and Khwan Fore (Richmond) while luring 6-8 Akoy Agau back for a second stint in the program. Also eligible after sitting out last year per NCAA transfer rules is 6-10 junior Steven Enoch (Connecticut).
Louisville’s recent turmoil didn’t deter vets such as Cunningham, who saw an opportunity to move the program forward.
“One of his biggest selling points was he needed me here and they wanted me here,” said the 6-2 Cunningham, who was voted a team co-captain with King. “It’s definitely about being a leader. A lot of these guys are younger and haven’t played a lot of minutes for whatever reason, and my role is to help them as much as I can and help my teammates be successful.”
Mack cautions that team chemistry remains a work in progress and Louisville will face adversity as it adapts to each other and a new system offensively and defensively. But the transition has encouraged him and particularly players, if only because things finally seem stable.
“It really settled things down,” Williams said of Mack’s hiring. “Having a coach we know will be here for a long time really helps us out because we can learn his system and be comfortable with it. We can lock in and learn all the details.”