NEW YORK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 10: Louisville Cardinals head coach Chris Mack reacts during the … [+]
On Sept. 26, 2017, federal investigators in New York held a press conference at the U.S. Attorney’s office in lower Manhattan during which they announced allegations of fraud and corruption in men’s college basketball. The charges included an allegation that James Gatto, an adidas senior executive, agreed to pay $100,000 to a highly-touted high school recruit, Brian Bowen, to steer him to Louisville.
The scandal ended up costing longtime Louisville coach Rick Pitino his job in October 2017. Bowen never appeared in a college game, instead signing a deal to play professionally in Australia. And earlier this year, the Cardinals’ program received a notice of inquiry from the NCAA for its involvement in the FBI scandal. The NCAA has not announced any violations against Louisville, although it had sanctioned Louisville two years ago for an unrelated scandal.
Now, remarkably, Louisville is first in the Associated Press and USA Today polls, although the Cardinals will fall from the top spots when next week’s rankings are released.
On Tuesday night, they lost to unranked Texas Tech, 70-57, in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, about four miles north of the U.S. Attorney’s office. Louisville is now 9-1.
Texas Tech (6-3), which lost to Virginia in overtime in April’s NCAA tournament championship game and returned only three players this season, snapped a three-game losing streak, although that is a bit deceiving. The Red Raiders’ last two losses were in overtime to Creighton and DePaul, both of which they played without freshman guard Jahmi’us Ramsey, their leading scorer averaging 17.3 points per game who is recovering from a hamstring injury.
Ramsey also missed Tuesday’s game, but the Red Raiders didn’t need him to dominate Louisville. They held the Cardinals to a season-low 34% from the floor, including 3 of 17 (17.6%) on 3-pointers.
Louisville junior forward Jordan Nwora, the ACC’s preseason player of the year, scored a team-high 14 points, but he only made 4 of 16 field goals, including 1 of 7 on 3’s. Redshirt senior center Steven Enoch was the only other Cardinals’ player in double figures, but he scored all 10 of his points in the first half.
“They’re a very tough team on the defensive end,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “They completely negated a lot of the stuff that we were trying to run. They did a lot of it with effort, communication and a want for the game. Hopefully our guys take this as a lesson learned.”
Despite the loss, Cardinals’ supporters should be thrilled with Mack, who has done better than anyone could have anticipated since he left Xavier and accepted the Louisville job in March 2018. Mack had won 68.8% of his games in nine seasons at Xavier and made eight NCAA tournaments, including an Elite Eight berth in 2017.
Louisville rewarded Mack with a seven-year deal worth $4 million per season to lure him away from Xavier. He was the sixth highest-paid college basketball coach last year, according to USA Today, which hasn’t yet updated its database this year.
The Cardinals have a veteran roster, with six of the top seven leading scorers returning from last season’s team that finished 20-14 and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Each of this season’s five starters were recruited by Pitino, four of whom were reserves on the 2017-18 squad that finished 22-14 under David Padgett, who was named interim coach after Louisville fired Pitino. The fifth starter, Enoch, played his first two seasons at the University of Connecticut before announcing in April 2017 that he would transfer to Louisville and play for Pitino.
Before Tuesday, Louisville had defeated each of its first nine opponents by at least 13 points, including a 58-43 victory over previously unbeaten Michigan last Tuesday. The previous week, the Wolverines had knocked off then-No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Gonzaga to win the Battle 4 Atlantis. Entering Tuesday, the Cardinals were second in analyst Ken Pomeroy’s overall rating and one of just two teams (along with Ohio State) ranked among the nation’s top 10 in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive rating.
And so, although the Cardinals lost to Texas Tech, they remain among several teams that could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The field looks wide open.
So far this year, four programs have been ranked atop the AP poll: Louisville, Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky. Next Monday, there will be another number one, with No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 Ohio State the leading contenders.
Louisville returns to action on Saturday against Eastern Kentucky and then faces Miami (Ohio) next Wednesday. The Cardinals then have a 10-day break before playing at Kentucky on Dec. 28. After that, they play their remaining 18 games against ACC opponents, including matchups with perennial powers Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.
With such a difficult schedule ahead, the Cardinals are likely to lose more games and get rattled like they did on Tuesday. They also wait for the NCAA to rule on any violations stemming from the FBI’s sting. Still, considering where Louisville was two years ago following Pitino’s dismissal, it remains an elite program under Mack, at least for now.