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'Incredibly difficult'

CRAWFORD | Mack says failure must be a teacher for Louisville basketball after NCAA snub

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Chris Mack Louisville

Chris Mack during Louisville's 2020 Senior Day game.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If it has been a rough 24 hours for University of Louisville men’s basketball fans, it has been no walk in the park for their basketball coach, Chris Mack said Monday, a day after his team was passed over for the NCAA Tournament.

For Mack, it has been a season of injuries, of COVID-19 starts and stops, of players out sick and of youth. That sounds like a list of excuses, so it will not be the focus of this column. But all of those are, in fact, realities. Other programs had to deal with such things, too. But as Mack pointed out when he sat down to talk to reporters Monday, nobody did it with a team as young as his that was trying to make the NCAA Tournament: ranked No. 331 out of 348 in terms of experience.

Down the road, a Kentucky team that ranked No. 335 out of 348 in experience didn’t even have to turn on the TV to learn its Selection Day fate.

Regardless, Mack looked like a man who knew the cost of missing the tournament in a city that has grown accustomed to it.

“Last night was really, really tough for a lot of people but no tougher than for the guy that you're looking at, whether people believe it or not,” Mack said. “I've been to 20 NCAA Tournaments out of the 24 times I could've. I'm not used to being in the position where we don't make it.”

By the time Mack met with reporters Monday afternoon, one player — Aidan Igehon, an oft-injured center from Ireland — had entered the transfer portal. Mack acknowledged he’s not likely to be the last one. He doesn’t know whether graduate Carlik Jones or senior Malik Williams will opt to return, though he would welcome both back. He said he suspected that transfer guard Charles Minlend, who suffered a knee injury before the season and was hampered most of the year, would go elsewhere.

“I think that in 2021 with the opportunity to play right away looming, I would not be surprised if there were some decisions made on our team,” Mack said.

But now, he added, was too early to know.

All of that is the normal churn of postseason basketball, especially when a team falls short of expectations.

Two other things about Mack interested me. At one point, Mack was a bit contentious. When asked about what appeared to be his team’s lack of urgency and slow pace of play, on one hand he acknowledged it. But on the other, he offered an explanation.

“The lack of urgency you guys like to point to, we never played or prepared like we were a shoo-in for the tournament,” Mack said. “Maybe that's how it appeared on TV, but we never thought that. When you say lack of urgency, I say we've got a young team, 331st in the nation in experience, 331st. We took our most experienced team from a year ago, and we lost all five starters. Again, no offseason, and we're asking these guys to be urgent every second. It's a very tough transition from high school to college, from never having played meaningful minutes to now being counted on for 30 minutes. It was frustrating, but that lesson hopefully got learned last night when we watched the selection show play out.”

Then Mack pivoted to pace.

“As for the pace of play, we want to play faster,” he said. “We're not going to be Rick Pitino and pressing all over the place, but we want to play full court, and we want to push the ball. We had two guards who played dang near 40 minutes a game, David (Johnson) and Carlik (Jones). Forty. Josh Nickleberry was hurt almost half the season, as was Charles Minlend. Those are our backup guards. So I'm going to ask those guys for 40 minutes each, 'Hey, I want you to pick up full court, turn over the ballhandler, we want you guys to push the pace. Any defensive rebound we get or made shot we want to push the pace like our hair's on fire. We want you to guard the best guards in the country. We want you to stay out of foul trouble, and by the way be our two leading scorers.’ Their wheels are going to fall off.”

And finally, Mack said, he acknowledged the need to play at a higher tempo. But he said that in the end, the team lacked the means to do that.

“We recognized that we were a better team when we played faster,” he said. “We recognized that, and we made efforts to try and play faster. But again, we had conditioning issues and injury issues where two of our fastest guys played 40 minutes per game. You couple that with 12 scholarship players, three of which were out almost the entire year. We're still limited on scholarships we're allowed to have. Hopefully that goes away after this season, but it is what it is. To answer your question, yes, we felt the lack of urgency as coaches. Yes, we want to play faster. Saying it and being able to do it are two different things.”

For the most part, though, Mack said he was disappointed for his players and for the fans. He described watching the Selection Show Sunday night as “incredibly difficult.”

I asked him, at the end, how handle the task of critiquing the job he did this past season. On that, Mack answered thoughtfully.

“I think having as much humility as you can,” he said. “To try to figure out like, what do I need to do better? Where do I need to grow as a coach? How can I put the best coaching staff forward that works together to help our team improve? I ask those questions in the offseason every year. And they probably have to be a lot more critical questions after this year. I read an article that was really interesting this morning about Matt Painter on The Athletic. He talked about, he had that time where he went in a cave and reflected on why his program wasn't maybe what he had envisioned ... You're constantly trying to figure out ways to improve your team. But now I can do that without the crush of preparing for your next opponent. Without worrying about what we're going to do in practice today. I think it's going to be good for our program.”

But some players, he warned, were going to have to take last night’s pain and allow it to toughen them, just as they would have with any tournament experience.

“I think failure is the greatest teacher and the greatest motivator,” he said. “I would like to think that how we felt last night — sitting in front of that video screen — will do wonders for our motivation and our understanding that every little thing that we do, as a players and coaches, matters. Everything. They're going to have to take that tough experience they had last night and they've got to let it motivate them and fuel them and push them to be leaders of our program so that it doesn't happen again, so we're not in the same position again. Guys are going to have to get a lot more mature and a lot more grown up and soak in details a hell of a lot better than we did this year so that it doesn't happen again. I think we have some guys that made some strides this year, but I don't think those strides were long enough to put us in a position where we were in the tournament this year, and that bared itself out. So we push toward next year, hopefully with a great offseason and a few additions, and failure being a really good teacher, we'll be in a much different position a year from now.”

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