Louisville was in limbo, enduring a season with an interim coach after years of recruiting scandals shrouded the program.
But just like the game of limbo, the Cardinals could have either crumbled under that low bar or emerged on their feet. With an NCAA tournament berth in their first season after that adversity, Louisville accomplished the latter.
The No. 7-seeded Cardinals (20-13) will face the No. 10-seeded Gophers (21-13) in an East Region first-round game Thursday in Des Moines.
Several scandals rocked the Louisville program in recent history. First, a sex scandal in 2015 in which the former director of basketball operations allegedly paid for strippers and prostitutes for some recruits from 2010-14. Then a pay-for-play corruption scandal cost former coach Rick Pitino his job ahead of the 2017-18 season.
One of his assistants, David Padgett, shepherded the team to an NIT appearance before former Xavier coach Chris Mack took the helm nearly a year ago. But Mack didn’t have the benefit of the team’s top three scorers from last season, as they either graduated or left school early for the NBA. Louisville also played the fourth-toughest schedule in the country, according to CBS.
Mack told the Louisville Courier-Journal that this season was like starting with a blank slate, yet he predicted the Cardinals would be a tournament team just five games into the season, after back-to-back losses.
“We had enough good players and the makings of what we needed to get back to the tournament,” Mack told the Courier-Journal. “Just because guys were inexperienced didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t good players and weren’t effective enough, and I think that was the key difference we saw.”
That certainly was the case for sophomore forward Jordan Nwora. He was the second-most improved scorer in the country this year, adding 11.6 more points per game this year to average 17.2 a game.
This entire season was a bit of a fresh start for the Cardinals, and it worked out pretty well. So they’re taking that same mind-set into the national tournament.
“The postseason is kind of a season of its own,” Louisville redshirt junior guard Ryan McMahon said. “You see some teams that really were in a funk, and they can get out of it. Or they weren’t in a funk and then get in one. We’ve been pretty conscious of that.”
Louisville continuing to reinvent itself might also be strategic. While the Gophers have played the Cardinals seven times, most recently in 2014, even Richard Pitino said he’s no longer familiar with a program for which he once was an assistant coach under his father.
“I don’t really know the team that well. Obviously, I know Louisville well,” Richard Pitino told reporters Sunday. “… Obviously, there is that story line. But I haven’t watched much of them.”