Chris Mack did not hesitate to acknowledge his Louisville basketball program needed a new vibe in Year 4. He replaced two assistant coaches and recruited three players, including two likely starters, from the transfer portal. He also promised a faster offensive tempo.
But the Cards lost their top two players, guards Carlik Jones and David Johnson, to the NBA Draft. Heading into this season, Louisville does not have that Top 25 look. Mack faces considerable work while chasing his first NCAA Tournament victory at a program that won't settle for missing the tourney the way the Cardinals did last season.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Chris Mack
2020-21 RECORD (ACC): 13-7 (8-5)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: None
G David Johnson (12.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
G Carlik Jones (16.8 ppg, 4.5 apg)
F Quinn Slazinski (6.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
The most important right foot in town belongs to Malik Williams, Louisville's senior forward. A broken bone in his foot forced Williams to miss all but three games last season after he had missed five games with foot issues the previous season. When he's healthy, Williams is the Cardinals' best interior defender, a productive 3-point shooter and a solid rebounder. He is the last recruit remaining from the Rick Pitino Era as well as a strong team leader.
Jae'Lyn Withers emerged as the Cards' most improved player, scoring at least 12 points in six of the team's final 10 games. Withers also averaged 8.5 boards during that stretch. If he can improve his ability to finish, Withers can be a double-double performer.
Samuell Williamson is the team's sole McDonald's All-American. But he has endured two inconsistent seasons as well as a benching because of issues with his jumper. Williamson had double-figure rebounds in five of Louisville's last seven games, but Mack needs him to play with an edge without the motivation of a benching.
Dre Davis and JJ Traynor showed flashes as freshmen, but Davis went just 12 for 48 from distance, and Traynor must add bulk.
The wild card is Matt Cross, who left the Miami program in late January, even though he started nine games and made 20 of his 50 3-point shots.
Sophomore center Gabe Wiznitzer and freshman Roosevelt Wheeler are full-sized inside players who will become more important if Williams cannot stay healthy.
Mack will start over here. For the fourth consecutive season, the Cards recruited a graduate transfer point guard. This year it is Jarrod West, who led Conference USA in steals and assists at Marshall.
West will have to earn the job because the Cardinals also added El Ellis, a junior college All-American who was ranked the top juco prospect in the nation by 247Sports. Ellis, a dynamic 6'3" playmaker, averaged 17.7 points and 4.3 assists for Tallahassee Community College, making nearly 42 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Noah Locke is likely to replace Johnson at shooting guard. He arrives from Florida, where he started 24 games last season, averaging 10.6 points and 2.4 rebounds. Locke was one of the top 3-point shooters in the SEC, making 57 of 141 attempts (.404). Locke made at least three shots from distance in 11 games. Freshman Mike James, from Orlando, Fla., was ranked the No. 77 recruit nationally by 247Sports and will swing between shooting guard and small forward.
The Cards underachieved last season, falling out of the NCAA Tournament after getting thumped by 45 points at North Carolina and 37 at Wisconsin and then losing their last two games to Virginia and Duke.
If Williams can stay healthy and Williamson improves — no sure things — the frontcourt should be solid. While the backcourt has a number of intriguing pieces, they're all new to the program and have never played together.
Everybody will be adjusting to a faster offensive tempo thanks to new assistant coach Ross McMains, who arrives with credentials from the NBA G-League.
That's a challenging scenario for winning in the ACC, where the Cards figure to settle into the middle of the pack.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Round of 32
ACC Prediction: 6