March 4, 2019

Men’s basketball: Too early to sweat short or long term

By Matt Bradshaw —

February has wounded men’s basketball for two straight seasons. Last year, the NCAA took away Louisville’s 2013 national title during the month. This year, the Cardinals lost six of eight disheartening games to end the month.

While there’s not much to add to discourse surrounding the NCAA ruling, the passage of time always offers a new perspective. Louisville has rebounded from its crippling sanctions with a 19-11 record against the fourth toughest schedule in the country, including its recent 75-61  win over Notre Dame on Senior Day.

Still, fans might say that settling with a solid season isn’t good enough for Louisville’s historic program. The month of February revealed the middling talent of this year’s team and, for some, doubts about Chris Mack’s coaching abilities.

In terms of talent, it’s not a knock to recognize the Cards struggled to finish last month. On the other hand, it’s too early to worry about the overall state of the team or the program. Here are three reasons to stay calm with the arrival of March.

NCAA chances set in stone

Worries about Louisville’s NCAA tournament chances were completely unfounded in February. Wins at the start of the year matter just as much as losses near the end of the season.

Defeats at Pittsburgh and Boston College don’t help the Cardinals, but don’t paralyze them either. You can’t forget that Louisville won at North Carolina, at Virginia Tech, at Seton Hall and hosting Michigan State.

At this point, the conversation should center around level of seeding. The Cards are a top-30 team in all major efficiency ratings and, depending on performance in the ACC tournament, could still boost their ranking.

Maybe Louisville will lose to Virginia and its first opponent in the conference tourney, but that won’t matter. NCAA chances are set in stone, and a slump in February could still turn out to be a positive wakeup call for the Cardinals.

Cutting Mack some slack

Putting aside culture change off the court, head coach Mack won the hearts of fans with a stretch of unexpected wins. February’s slump may have changed minds, though, and caused a questioning in his ability to guide the program.

Anyone who says, “This wouldn’t have happened under Rick Pitino,” has no patience in the coaching process whatsoever. Pitino compiled a 21-13 record in his first year as Louisville head coach, not dissimilar to Mack’s first stint. More importantly, it took Pitino four seasons to get the Cards passed the second round of the NCAA tournament.

As Mack has already helped ensure a 2019 tournament appearance, it’s hard to make any definitive criticisms until the season ends. And with a highly-touted incoming recruiting class next season, it’s hard to argue against Mack’s long-term chances during his first stint.

You can’t take away history

Of late, being a Louisville men’s basketball supporter fluctuates between encouraging and disheartening. Ever since the erasure of 2013’s title, there have been few moments on the court where the Cardinals seem back and better than ever.

Maybe it will take more than success on the court to change that. The removal of Pitino and his accomplishments from 2011-04, along with a self-imposed postseason ban in 2016, left a gaping hole in the program’s history, for better or worse.

Now a successful professional coach in Greece, Pitino reflected on the end of his Louisville career late last month.

”You can’t take away history,” Pitino said. “You can take a banner down, but you can’t take a championship. We won the championship fair and square. Players did the wrong things. They had women in the dormitory that shouldn’t have been there But those women didn’t help the players run faster, jump higher, score points.”

One solution to fill the hole is, as Pitino does, acknowledge that the past happened. If U of L placed a national title banner in the KFC Yum! Center – one that says “National Champion” rather than “NCAA Champion” – it could serve as a morale booster while avoiding any problem with the NCAA.

Such an action is not unprecendented, and a sizeable portion of fans would support acknowledging the program’s championship year.

In the meantime, Louisville men’s basketball travels to face Virginia on Saturday, March 9 at 4 p.m. The ACC Tournament comes after from March 12-16 in Charlotte, NC.

You can follow the Louisville Cardinal on Twitter @thecardsports.

File Photo / The Louisville Cardinal

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