By Conner Farrell —
It’s finally November. The leaves turn, the air chills and men’s college basketball returns for another season. Like most years in the storied history of U of L’s program, each team has a certain flavor to it and the 2018-19 squad is no exception.
Most notably, men’s basketball features a new full-time head coach for only the third time since the 1971-72 season. Chris Mack takes the torch from Hall of Famers Denny Crum and Rick Pitino.
Mack, who guided the Xavier Musketeers for nine seasons, looks to put Louisville’s high profile program back in business following several years of turmoil.
“I believe we have something special brewing in the Ville again, and it starts with the leadership of our head basketball coach,” athletics director Vince Tyra said.
The Cleveland, Ohio native boasts a tremendous resume from Xavier that includes four Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite Eight appearance in 2017. Mack also guided the Musketeers to a No. 1 seed in last season’s NCAA tournament.
Aside from his achievements, Mack’s teams are known for their physical play on both ends of the floor and offensive motion featuring an outstanding wing player.
Looking at the current roster, coach Mack has a wide array of young talent to mold into his system.
“A good coaching staff gives the players whatever they need to be successful,” Mack said. “Our guys are improving, and their willingness to improve has been impressive. There’s a lot more to come, but the attitude has been great.”
The Cardinals return only one starter from this past season, but the team brings back three players who finished their freshman campaigns in great standing: guard Darius Perry and forwards Malik Williams and Jordan Nwora.
Junior forward V. J. King is the lone returning starter and fits the mold of a scoring wing featured in Mack’s offense.
Along with King, veteran leadership abounds with graduate transfers Akoy Agau, Christen Cunningham and Khwan Fore. Agau found his way back to the program after leaving in 2014.
“Each of the graduate transfers has a unique story,” Mack said. “You need guys that can provide stability and assimilate themselves into a team seamlessly.”
Junior center Steven Enoch is eligible to play this year after sitting out last season at UConn. The upperclassman has a vital role as starting big man for Louisville.
This is not to mention Mack’s two other redshirt juniors: sharpshooting guard Ryan McMahon and do-it-all forward Dwayne Sutton.
With Mack and all his players laid out, the question becomes: What is the end-of-year projection for this team?
When asked for a realistic prediction for what fans can expect, Mack responded honestly.
“This isn’t going to excite our fan base, but I want our team to get better every single time we step on the floor,” Mack said. “I’ve never said numbers or wins or anything like that. I want us to stick together through thick and thin and get better as the season progresses. That’s it, and where that is, I don’t know.”
Starting with the schedule, the Cards have one of the most rigorous non-conference slates in recent memory. The team will face the best in the country with the likes of Tennessee, Kansas and old-time Big East foe Marquette in the NIT Tip-off.
U of L also squares off with Seton Hall, the Indiana Hoosiers and, of course, the Kentucky Wildcats in their yearly matchup.
It’s safe to say the non-conference schedule is loaded and serves as a great litmus test for how the team will fare in conference play. The ACC will be the premier conference of men’s college basketball with the blue bloods of Duke and North Carolina leading the way this season.
Louisville squares up against highly-talented programs in-conference with Clemson, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Virginia.
Considering their loaded schedule, the Cardinals were picked to finished 10th in the preseason ACC poll by conference coaches. U of L is not featured in the national rankings.
“I recognize we have one of the toughest schedules in the entire country,” Mack said. “So our resiliency will be tested, our ability will be tested, and that’s a good thing. History shows teams that put themselves in the conversation for NCAA tournament bids – the selection committee rewards teams that go out and challenge themselves.”
The core of this year’s team is young and unproven. The tough games will serve as learning experiences for both the student-athletes and new coaching staff. All things considered, Louisville men’s basketball should have the leadership and talent to make it to March.
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Photo by Taris Smith / The Louisville Cardinal