Louisville's loss to NC State felt different
Inside: One observer's column on Louisville basketball and its future.
In an absolutely critical, can’t-lose home game for Louisville — the first of a key five-game stretch with the potential to help the Cards find some momentum and pull a disappointing, frustrating season off the mat — NC State shot 56.1%, made 12 3-pointers, led by as many as 18 points and never trailed over the final 28 minutes of the game. Louisville shot 60.9% in the second half, but its inability to get stops paired with a ruinous 18-1 State run were far too much to overcome.
So many familiar elements from previous games showed up on Wednesday evening — a complete 180 on offense that leads to a lengthy opponent run, no energy or passion after the halftime break, etc. And yet, Wednesday evening also felt very different as the clock ticked away.
Wednesday evening felt like a most significant turning point for Chris Mack’s tenure at Louisville. At the least, it felt like an invisible hand started the clock on him needing to find some immediate answers to what ails his program. At the most, it felt like perhaps the beginning of the end. Either way, this is the first time I’ve thought something felt different, and I do not say it lightly.
We arrived at this point not entirely from Mack’s own doing — any logical person acknowledges the impact made by the lingering infractions case and pandemic — but the stakes coming into this season were very high after missing the NCAA Tournament. He knew that. Everyone knew that. Yet the summer was full of headline-making, followed by a six-game suspension, and the basketball product hasn’t made up for that. His quote in the post-NC State press conference, that finding a way to create a spark with this team is “all I think about,” so much so that his family “doesn't even believe I am at the house,” illustrated how troubled he knows the waters are.
Of course, I could be totally wrong here. Louisville could run off a bunch of wins and surprise everyone the rest of the way. But the Cardinals’ NCAA Tournament hopes are now on life support and they are in danger of missing the dance for the second consecutive year, a significant problem for any Louisville men’s basketball coach. I have a hard time seeing how this situation gets better over the next seven weeks.
For this week’s newsletter, I’d planned to highlight El Ellis’s progress with his drives, to expand with video on Mack’s point that Ellis has slowly but surely stopped driving into crowds and leaving his feet without a plan. Instead, Ellis shifted to making more good decisions with the ball in his hands among the trees. I asked for some reader questions for a Q&A, too, some of which I’ll still get to below.
But that newsletter, penned over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday, was written under the premise that Louisville likely would defeat one of the worst teams in the ACC, a team it had already beaten and a team coming to Louisville having lost six of seven. The game represented a real opportunity for Louisville, the start of a five-game stretch against three teams ranked outside the KenPom top 100 and two others (Notre Dame and Virginia) that have been inconsistent at different points this season.
But here I am writing this, well past midnight, because any other use of this newsletter would neglect my mission to be fair, level-headed and clear-eyed for TFST readers. I’m thinking about something many people, either with proximity to U of L’s decision-making apparatus or with deep knowledge of the Louisville men’s basketball program and the coaching industry, didn’t think would happen this year. U of L doesn’t have a permanent athletics director or president right now. Those two factors, according to sources I really trust on this, made parting ways with Mack after this season highly unlikely. (Perhaps those factors still make it highly unlikely.) And unless his contract (see it here) has been updated since 2018, Mack’s buyout stands at $12 million, which is a lot of money.
There are also 14 more conference games, and maybe there is a way back to tournament contention with this team. Maybe the lack of permanent university leadership buys Mack more time past this season to find the right mix of players he can develop and motivate into a winning team, provided the interim leadership believes he can do that or doesn’t want to make moves ahead of a permanent AD hire.
All of those factors matter. Still, I keep coming back to the inescapable feeling Wednesday night. Fans booed the home team in the Yum Center, a sign this is no longer just a Twitter, sports radio, message board, diehards thing. The frustration is widespread and significant, to the point that every possession feels like a tight-rope walk. That is a difficult environment to operate in. And in a lot of ways, the loss to NC State felt like the moment when a camera filming fast-approaching stormwaters gets overtaken by the rough waves.
Let’s get to some reader questions.
Under the scenario where Mack gets more time to craft a winner, let’s answer these two questions together.
First, to reset:
Louisville is pursuing another ballhandling guard, which would bring the incoming recruits to four. Abram is expected to visit on the 22nd and Claude already has — it seems like those two are the top targets. Another guard, Sean East, who played high school ball at New Albany, has reportedly heard from Louisville. He’s averaging 22 points a game at John A. Logan College, where Sydney Curry and Jay Scrubb played, after stints at Bradley and UMass.
Beyond that, we need to know where Noah Locke stands after four years in college. It’s my understanding he has one more year of eligibility, but if he moves on, Louisville needs another off-guard/wing-type, something obtainable via the transfer portal. Don’t forget that Mike James, a really promising wing, should be back in the mix next season as long as his rehab goes as planned. (Louisville could have really used him this season.)
Tae Davis is a 6-7, 200-pound combo forward whose length and toughness will help on the defensive end and around the rim. I have no idea what to expect from Fredrick King, but he comes with NBA Academy pedigree and tantalizing size (6-10 with a 9-2 standing reach) and athleticism for his position. The player I’m most convinced would plug right in as a major contributor is Kamari Lands, a long, athletic wing with serious scoring chops and pro potential.
Whether the roster is completely overhauled depends in large part on how the next seven weeks play out. As most of you know, with immediate eligibility for first-time transfers, player movement is much more common. If the season continues on this uneven path, I imagine there’d be a number of departures.
This one obviously came in before the NC State game. Louisville now ranks 86th in KenPom’s efficiency ratings and 106th in the NET. The NCAA Tournament is very, very much in doubt. To re-enter the conversation, Louisville has to stop losing Quadrant 3/4 games, of which there will be more in league play, and take advantage of the few Quad 1 opportunities coming up. You have to beat Duke and UNC. We have no reason to think the Cards can do any of that.
Floyd Street’s Finest podcast
This week on Floyd Street’s Finest, I chatted with former Louisville beat writer CL Brown about ACC hoops and his memories of covering Russ Smith. That episode, along with last week’s interview with Dre Davis, is on Spotify and Apple and wherever else you get your podcasts. Make sure you subscribe, rate and review the pod!
Thanks so much for reading!