Don’t look now, but Louisville basketball just might be back … make that “Back” with a capital B.
The scandal of the Rick Pitino era is finally ebbing into the background as coach Chris Mack heads into his second season at the helm.
Mack’s first year will, unfortunately, be best remembered for what can only be described as the “Duke debacle” – when the Cardinals blew a 23-point lead, at home, to the Blue Devils with less than ten minutes to go in the game.
But diving deeper than that one abysmal nine-minute stretch, Mack’s first season was undeniably a success. He steadied the bobbing Louisville ship, leading the team to a solid 20-14 record, a return to the NCAA tournament and, perhaps most impressively, a 23-point lead over the #1 team in the nation in the first 31 minutes of that Duke game.
Mack’s second season is expected to continue the upward trend for the program. The team heads into 2019-20 as a top-ten March Madness favorite, according to the title odds tracker at SportsBettingDime.com. Their +1800 odds give the team a very encouraging 5.3% chance to cut down the nets in Atlanta.
Their chances to win the ACC regular-season title have significantly improved since they were first posted, as well. The Cardinals were originally given the fourth-best odds to win the regular-season ACC crown at +600, trailing Duke (+250), Virginia (+280), and UNC (+450).
But the early money from sharp bettors has clearly been backing Mack. Just a week later, Louisville’s odds had improved to +400, surging ahead of the Tar Heels.
The reasons for optimism are not hard to pinpoint. Originally, the 2019-20 team was expected to see a lot of turnover. Leading scorer Jordan Nwora (17.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG) was widely expected to leave for the NBA, but instead opted to return. The standout guard was joined by center Steven Enoch (9.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG), who withdrew his name from the NBA draft, as well.
Only one of the team’s top-four scorers (Christen Cunningham, 10.1 PPG) is gone, and the incoming talent outstrips the loss of Cunningham.
Mack landed five-star freshman wing Samuell Williamson, along with grad transfer Lamarr “Fresh” Kimbel from St. Joseph’s. Williamson and Kimble project to slot into the starting five immediately, joining Nwora, Enoch, and double-digit scorer Dwayne Sutton (10.0 PPG), who will provide more senior leadership and decent outside shooting.
If Nwora lives up to his preseason hype, which has him pegged as the favorite to win ACC Player of the Year, the ceiling for this team is certainly the Final Four. With Duke losing Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish to the pros, and UVA waving goodbye the Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and DeAndre Hunter, there could very well be a power vacuum at the top of the ACC that Louisville is well-positioned to fill.
With the ACC switching to a 20-game schedule this season, the Cardinals’ conference slate will tip off earlier than usual. Louisville’s first game of the regular season will also kick of its ACC campaign as the Cardinals face Miami on Nov. 5th in Coral Gables.