BOZICH | Scott Padgett says Christen Cunningham will help Louisville win
Former Kentucky star Scott Padgett would have loved to coach Christen Cunningham another season but understands his move to Louisville -- and that he will make the Cards better.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Of course, Scott Padgett wanted Christen Cunningham to finish his splendid career at Samford University, leading the Bulldogs to the Southern Conference championship.
Cunningham was the first recruit Padgett called, five minutes after he was named Samford’s head coach in 2014. He started 110 games for the Bulldogs, becoming the program’s all-time assists leader and 13th leading scorer.
“When Christen was on the floor, I never felt I had to call any plays because he could always figure out what the defense was doing and get us in the right sets,” said Padgett.
That is one of the qualities the University of Louisville coaching staff will need Cunningham to provide for the Cardinals next season. Cunningham finished course work at Samford this week and will receive his bachelor’s degree in public administration Saturday.
As a graduate transfer, he’ll join Chris Mack’s program with immediate eligibility for the 2018-19 season. Padgett said Cunningham has the skills to play point guard — or off the ball next to Darius Perry.
Padgett’s first choice was that Cunningham lead Samford to the NCAA Tournament next winter.
But the coach understood and endorsed Cunningham’s move to Louisville. “If he was going to leave, I’m glad he’s going to Louisville,” Padgett said.
“He’ll be a good player for them because he understands how to make other players better. Put good players around him and he knows what to do to win games. He’s a very smart kid and intelligent player. One of the schools that he turned down to play for us was Harvard.
“If you’re a kid from Kentucky and have a chance to play at Louisville your senior season, that’s pretty attractive. He’ll be able to play most of his games in front of his family and friends.”
That final sentence resonated with Padgett. He excelled at St. Xavier High School before playing for Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith at Kentucky and then pushing the Wildcats to their unexpected 1998 NCAA title. Padgett was taken by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 1999 NBA Draft.
Next season will be his fifth as the Bulldogs’ head coach. During his first three years, Padgett won 13, 14 and then 20 games. Samford had wins outside its conference against North Texas, Nebraska, San Diego and Saint Louis.
The 2017-18 season was supposed to be the season the Bulldogs chased a league title and positioned themselves to make the NCAA Tournament, which requires winning the league tournament in the Southern Conference.
But Wyatt Walker, his best inside player, missed all but two games with an injury. Cunningham was not 100 percent when the season began. “He had an illness that he tried to fight through but he just didn’t feel right,” Padgett said.
He was limited to nine games, including an appearance against Loyola of Chicago. Cunningham had 17 points and five assists against the Ramblers, who finished their season in the Final Four.
His last appearance was Dec. 5 game against Memphis, Cunningham stopped practicing for the next six weeks as he recovered from the illness. Eventually, he returned to team activities but the decision was made to hold him out of games and apply for a medical redshirt.
“He could have played the last four or five games and with Christen in the lineup we would have won most of them,” Padgett said. “That’s the kind of leader he is.”
Samford finished a disappointing 10-22 season with a conference tournament loss to Chattanooga March 2. When the team returned to Birmingham, Wyatt told Padgett that he planned to graduate and transfer (picking North Carolina State).
He was followed by Justin Coleman, a guard who is taking his 13.5 scoring average to Arizona. Cunningham made his move to Louisville official this week.
“I totally understand it,” Padgett said. “I totally understand wanting to play your senior season at a place where you’ll be on television and have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament.”
Like most mid-major coaches, Padgett must navigate the loss of players that he scouted and offered (Cunningham was a back-up point guard to Quentin Snider on the Louisville Magic AAU team), developed and hoped would lead his program to the NCAA Tournament.
Now Padgett is searching for players to fill the spots left by the three graduate transfers and contemplating one change to how he runs his program.
“For schools in our situation, it doesn’t pay to have guys go to summer school and earn at least six credit hours every year,” Padgett said.
“The reality is that by early December, every high major program in the country is putting together their lists of the guys who might be available as graduate transfers.
“Every kid that we’ve got had the option to go to Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Kentucky, Arizona or wherever out of high school but that wasn’t where they were able to go. Now, because of the graduate transfer situation, they have that option.
“It is what it is. I wish them all the best. I really do. It’s my job to make sure we have a great team next season here at Samford and that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
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