By Conner Farrell —
Men’s basketball season ended with an 86-76 loss to Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This short-lived appearance in the Big Dance capped a 20-14 campaign for the Cardinals in their first season under head coach Chris Mack.
Minnesota shot 40 percent from beyond the arc for 11 three-pointers. This is a notable stat, considering the Gophers only average 5.1 per game and shot nine percent from three in their second-round loss to Michigan State.
Sure, the first-round exit for U of L is disappointing, especially since they were the higher seed in the matchup. However, the Cardinal faithful should not let this defeat mar the season as whole.
The season for the Cards had a number of peaks and valleys. Let’s examine them closely in this season review.
In the preseason ACC coaches poll, Louisville was picked to finish 11th in the conference. The ranking was justifiable for three reasons: U of L missed the NCAA tourney last year, brought in a new coach with no recruiting class and lost four of its five starters.
All of these factors seemed to leave the Cards undeterred as they rolled through the non-conference schedule, which was arguably one of the toughest in the conference, with a 9-4 record. This included a home upset of then-No. 9 Michigan State in overtime.
After dropping their first ACC road game to Pittsburgh, the Cardinals made national buzz as they upset No. 12 North Carolina in an 83-62 rout on the road. This was UNC’s worst home loss in 16 seasons under head coach Roy Williams. Following the rout, Louisville picked up a couple more wins and entered the AP poll for the first time in months.
U of L tallied one more win against a ranked team at No. 11 Virginia Tech on Feb. 4.
For the remaining portion of the season, the team toiled through a tough ACC schedule, but there were some bright spots. Sophomore Jordan Nwora solidified his candidacy for the ACC’s Most Improved Player of the Year, with an average of 17 points per game. Graduate transfer Christen Cunningham came into his own running the team from the point averaging 4.8 assists per game.
It is undisputed that this year’s edition of the men’s basketball team exceeded many expectations prior to the season starting, but the tough stretch in the month of February cannot be overlooked. For starters, the epic 23-point collapse to No. 2 Duke was perhaps one of the worst Cardinal losses of the decade. Unfortunately, this loss went on to shape the rest of the season.
The Cards only managed to win one game against teams with a winning record following Feb. 4. The 3-7 finish following the Virginia Tech victory featured a 20-point rout from the Syracuse Orange and a questionable double-digit road loss to Boston College.
The two biggest weaknesses for the team throughout the season was keeping teams off the offensive glass, which plagued them in big games throughout the season, and defending the paint. Opposing teams shot 46 percent inside the arch against the Cardinals, good enough for 29th nationally.
In year two under Mack, the program will bring in the seventh-ranked recruiting class in the nation. Forward Samuell Williamson and center Aidan Igiehon highlight the group ranked 39th and 48th in nation the respectively.
The team will lose starting graduate transfer guards Cunningham and Khwan Fore, and center Akoy Agau. Every other player is eligible to come back for the 2019-20 season. Expect players who return to feel much more comfortable in Mack’s system, especially on the defensive side of the ball in the Pack Line formation, as well as the six-player freshmen class to make an immediate impact.
Following the season ending defeat, Mack expressed how this team meant to him.
“It’s a really tough feeling, you know, to end your season so quickly in the NCAA tournament,” Mack said. “I am very proud of our group. They exceeded a lot of people’s expectations. It’s sorta hard to see that in the moment, but to get a group that was picked 11th preseason in our conference and to represent our conference in the NCAA tournament, I don’t take that lightly.”
It may not be universal, but that sentiment is viewed the same by a majority of Louisville fans as the first chapter of a new era comes to a close.
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Photos by Taris Smith / The Louisville Cardinal