Chris Mack's Cardinals are a legitimate contender
The transition period is complete.
In 2018, Louisville missed the NCAA Tournament. In 2019, the Cardinals returned to the NCAAs but bowed out with a lopsided loss in the first round. Now, heading into Year 2 under Chris Mack, Louisville is once again a preseason top-10 team and a legitimate contender in the ACC.
Credit Mack, who has pieced together a roster of the best players left from Rick Pitino’s final two recruiting classes, a prime graduate transfer and a top-15 class of his own.
The Cardinals have depth, experience, size, talent and only a short list of questions. “I know the expectations are going to be high, which is good,” Louisville forward Jordan Nwora says. “I like it.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Chris Mack
2018-19 RECORD (ACC): 20-14 (10-8)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Minnesota 86-76 in the first round
G Christen Cunningham (10.1 ppg, 4.8 apg)
G Khwan Fore (3.3 ppg, 1.2 apg)
F V.J. King (3.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg)
Nwora is the top returning scorer in the ACC after he averaged 17.0 points and 7.6 rebounds in a breakout sophomore season. Nwora was primed to join the large ACC exodus, but a lower leg injury left him unable to work out for NBA teams, and he returned to school to work on his strength and ball handling to complement an offensive game that featured a 37.4 percent 3-point stroke.
Senior center Steven Enoch also considered the NBA but must improve his rebounding and ability to protect the rim. Malik Williams, a junior, has NBA potential because of his ability to shoot from distance, but he must learn how to protect his spot on the block. Although some consider him more of a glue guy, senior Dwayne Sutton averaged a healthy 10.0 points and led Louisville in scoring five times with a game built on relentless energy and leadership.
The four frontcourt veterans will be pressed by three of the highest-rated members of the recruiting class — forwards Samuell Williamson and Jae’Lyn Withers and center Aidan Igiehon. All should play.
Mack built a solid backcourt last season on the toughness of two graduate transfers, and he’ll follow that playbook again. Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble arrives from Saint Joseph’s, where he averaged 15.6 points and served as a team captain for three seasons. Former Louisville star Pervis Ellison coached Kimble in AAU and compared him to current Michigan State star Cassius Winston because of Kimble’s poise and savvy.
Kimble figures to start from Day 1. It is his running mate that will be decided during the summer and fall. Darius Perry struggled through an uneven sophomore season, losing his starting spot in January because of turnovers and an inability to make shots. Mack praised Perry after the season for remaining with the Cards and committing to improving his decision-making.
Senior Ryan McMahon is a solid situational player who is fearless against zone defenses but a defensive liability against top ACC guards.
David Johnson, a local high school star, and Josh Nickelberry arrive as freshmen, though Johnson will be sidelined for several months with a shoulder injury.
Williamson and Withers have the shooting ability to play off-guard.
Louisville has as much quality talent returning as any team in the ACC. Nwora will be one of the frontrunners for ACC Player of the Year because of his scoring ability and confidence to take the tough shots. Sutton brings the blue-collar mentality that Mack loves and leads this team with his tenacity.
But it’s a guard-oriented game, and Mack’s ability to develop his backcourt will determine how much better Louisville will be in March. Kimble has solid credentials, but the guards are larger and more athletic in the ACC than in the A-10. Perry’s inconsistency is another X-factor. If it all works, though, Louisville will among the ACC elite and a national championship contender.
Postseason Prediction: Final Four
ACC Prediction: 2nd