LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This is the kind of story that Louisville basketball fans hoped to one day see when Chris Mack was hired to lead the troubled program a little more than 15 months ago. But even the most optimistic probably didn’t expect it so soon.
Four coaches have been first-time NCAA champions this decade – Kentucky’s John Calipari, Villanova’s Jay Wright, former Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie and, most recently, Virginia’s Tony Bennett.
As a summer exercise, Sports Illustrated convened a panel of its college basketball writers to answer the question: Who will be the next first-time winner of the NCAA title. [Read the story here.]
The consensus? Louisville coach Chris Mack. Despite Texas Tech's Chris Beard and Auburn's Bruce Pearl making their first Final Four last April, four of the seven SI panelists picked the second-year Cards’ coach as the next to win his first national title, with a couple, like Max Meyer, saying it could well happen this season.
“Getting Jordan Nwora back for his junior year was huge, and grad transfer Lamarr Kimble is a welcome addition at point guard,” he said. “Pulling in a very strong recruiting class doesn't hurt either. Louisville overachieved in Mack's first season at the helm, and the Cardinals will be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC for years to come. Mack is an excellent gameplanner, and he has the talent to make a major breakthrough this campaign.”
Emily Caron noted: “No one will top Tony Bennett’s redemption run, but Chris Mack could bring the Cardinals back to glory and get his first national championship with Louisville this year. He’s just in his second season at the helm and it might sound early, but with the right combination of veteran leadership (led by potential ACC POY Jordan Nwora), a good grad transfer get in Lamarr Kimble and a highly-rated recruiting class, Mack could have the right combination on his roster to take an NCAA title.”
Two others agreed, with Mark Few of Gonzaga and Matt Painter of Purdue and Beard also getting nods from the panel.
While these things are often just fodder for passing the slow summer months until the real action keeps up, just being in that kind of conversation is a remarkable thing, just 21 months after the college basketball corruption scandal crashed into the headlines and Hall of Famer Rick Pitino was removed, and later fired.
It's testament to the job Mack has done in turning around performance and perception in Louisville.
But don’t expect him to pay a lot of attention to the praise, though positive publicity certainly beats the other kind.
“You come to a place like Louisville because of those expectations,” Mack said a month ago. “It’s what I signed up for a year ago. … We’re not going to run from those expectations. I think that’s why guys came here, to play in the biggest of big games. . . . But we want to make sure our players are grounded in reality, and that reality is that we haven’t done squat yet. It’s all on paper. You can pull out last year’s preseason Top 25, top 35, and you can find a lot of teams on that list that didn’t even make the tournament.”
Still, Mack added, he’d rather have the talent that produces such lofty expectations than what he had when he arrived in Louisville.
The most recent CBS Sports Top 25 (plus one) ranks Louisville No. 4 in the preseason, behind Michigan State, Duke and Kentucky. Jeff Goodman of Stadium ranks the Cardinals No. 3, behind Kansas and Michigan State.
“There’s a lot of work between now and November when we play our first game at Miami, Florida,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do, a lot of newcomers to learn personalities, to transition to our team, learn how to coach them, teach them. But I’d rather be doing that with the talent we have now as opposed to a year ago when we really only had nine healthy scholarship bodies. . . . We embrace the expectations. We have big goals. We want to shoot for the stars. But we have a lot of work ahead of us. Last year, the ending, really left a bad taste in our mouth. It did mine.”
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