By BILL DOOLITTLE
It’s the middle of July. Still four months until the beginning of basketball season. But Chris Mack, the new University of Louisville men’s basketball coach, is already talking with reporters about the prospects for his first UofL team.
And the prospects, it seems, are pretty good.
“We’re getting there, we’re getting there,” Mack says, with a kind of cool coaching confidence.
The new coach won’t be inheriting a set lineup. Familiar standards Ray Spalding, Deng Adel and Quentin Snider are all off playing professional basketball.
But Mack does have talent with which to work — including promising sophomores Darius Perry, Jordan Nwora and Malik Williams. And maybe a sturdy pivot man in Steven Enoch, a 6-foot-10 transfer from Connecticut.
That should be enough to get started.
And you know coaches. They know they can coach.
What Chris Mack is really looking for is an intangible — part muscle, part mindset. He wants his players to be tough — tough physically and tough mentally.
“I think we’re getting tougher, but the proof is in the pudding when we start playing games,” says Mack, who went 215-97 in nine seasons at Xavier University before taking the Louisville job.
Tough is one thing Louisville wasn’t a year ago. Working in the shadows of investigations by the NCAA and FBI, with an interim coach, David Padgett, Louisville lost too many games in the final minutes that it could have won. Mack wants to make sure his team is ready for the heat of those final moments.
“We’re just trying to sew the seeds of how we want to play on both ends of the floor,” says Mack. “If you’re not physically and mentally tough, I don’t think you have a fighter’s chance.”
Hickory at the wire
Mack says that process begins in the summer in the weight room, where he has brought in Andy Kettler as strength and conditioning coach to replace retiring Ray Ganong. The change could provide a clue to how Mack’s teams might differ in style from those of coach Rick Pitino.
“No. 1,” says Mack, “I think Coach G was a guy who did what the coach asked, and he (Pitino) wanted his players to be able to run up and down, and press and play for 40 minutes — and I think that’s obviously why they were very successful.
“But it’s just like basketball — there’s a million ways to skin a cat,” Mack adds. “I want our guys to be tough. I want them to be physical. (Earlier) we said the word ‘big.’ We don’t aim to get our guys big, we aim to get them stronger.”
And that doesn’t mean slower.
“West Virginia (where Kettler worked previously) wasn’t stuck in the mud at half court,” says Mack. “They played full-court basketball. They pressed. They were as physical as any team in the country.”
Perhaps as much a reflection of West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. Not exactly a cream puff.
But neither was Rick Pitino.
Which leaves the question of how tough is enough? Many college fans yearn for the basketball of yesteryear, when a foul was a foul, and the game was more about finesse than strength.
But Mack is certainly onto something seeking mental toughness. He knows Louisville lost too many games in the final minutes last season and will want his players hickory hard as the game winds to the wire.
A guy who can get 30
Appearing with Mack at the news conference was one of those promising Louisville sophomores-to-be, 6-8 Jordan Nwora — just back from the African Qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, where he played for his father.
Alex Nwora is the coach at Erie Community College in Pennsylvania, and also is handling the Nigerian national team in the world games. Father and son have dual citizenship in the U.S. and Nigeria.
Nwora averaged 21 points and eight rebounds in three qualifying victories for Nigeria, with a high of 31 in the finals against Mali. It was a record for Nigeria in a tournament game.
“At first,” Nwora says, “everybody was thinking, you’re just on the team because your dad is the coach. But I think in the time I was there, I proved it wasn’t just because my dad is the coach. It was a good experience for me.”
“Anytime you get to play internationally, you’re going to play against men,” says Mack. “You’re going to play against guys that are 30 years old and have a family and kids. You better be physical.”
Mack says especially liked Nwora’s complete stat sheet.
“I think the one thing I was really excited about, I know Jordan can score the ball. We all know he can shoot the ball. But to rebound the way he did at the international level, to average almost double-figure rebounds, says a lot about his capabilities as an overall player,” says Mack.
Nwora didn’t get a lot of playing time last season at UofL, often riding the bench behind starter Adel. When he did get into games, he scored fast and easily — from everywhere on the court. You could see he’s a guy who can put 30 points on the board.
But as fast as he’d get going, interim coach Padgett would often yank him. It was kind of perplexing. But the coach might have been driving home a point about Nwora’s lack of defensive concentration.
In the second half of a thriller against Virginia, Nwora came through with key baskets. But Virginia had Nwora scouted and immediately ran plays to get its guys one-on-one against Nwora. And they scored.
But modest defensive improvement might be enough. You don’t want to take the edge off a guy who can pour it in.
Chip on his shoulder
Mack notes an almost exact-opposite scenario with junior forward V.J. King, who seems to have scoring skills, a nice shot. Yet seldom scores consistently. But he does play defense.
Mack says King has gotten tougher and stronger over the summer.
“I think he’s playing a little bit more with a chip on his shoulder than he has in the past — he needs to,” says Mack. “We have to get V.J. to the point where he feels like he’s one of the best players on the floor, and I don’t think that’s something he can say in his first couple years.
“He’s still not perfect,” Mack continues, “but nobody puts in more work than V.J. I’d like to think he can be … as versatile of a defender on the team as there is. And he needs to shoot a higher percentage from the floor. That all starts from taking better shots.”
“Confidence is everything for everybody — it’s everything,” says Mack. “Confidence is earned, and if you need a coach to boost your confidence, then you don’t really have any. Guys like V.J., he should be a more confident version of himself this season.
A long way ’round the block
With a year lost in recruiting because of NCAA problems and coaching changes, Mack has brought in three graduate transfers to shore up the roster. Players with college experience, who have graduated but have one more year more of college eligibility. Guys who could play right away.
Two of the new Cardinals are guards: Christen Cunningham, who played at Samford, and Khwan Fore, who played at Richmond.
The other is much-traveled 6-8 forward Akoy Agau, who is “back to the future” at Louisville.
Agau is a native of the Sudan, who moved to Egypt as a child, then to Omaha, Neb., where he was a high school All-Stater. He began his college career at Louisville in 2013, but transferred to Georgetown — where he earned his degree, but also missed extensive time with injuries. Last season he played at Southern Methodist University, and now is back to Louisville to complete his fourth year of college play.
“He’s had a wild ride, to say the least,” says Mack. “But in Akoy, we felt like if we can get him healthy enough to get through a season, he can help us.”
Especially in the hard knocks world of basketball under the basket.
“He’s a much better player than he was as a freshman, like most guys that are in their later years in college — and he’s in his very, very late years,” says Mack. “He’s seen so many different styles of play and gone up against so many different types of players that I think he’s versatile and adaptable enough to come back here where it all started for him.”
An inspirational comeback story?
“He’s only been here a week, so I’m not going to crown him our leader in a week’s time,” says Mack, with a chuckle. “There’s some guys that have put in an awful lot of hard work since we got here at the end of March — that are about the right things, that are doing the things we want for them to become better players and for us to become a better team.”