In early October, when I stopped by new Louisville coach Chris Mack’s office for a discussion about the rising trend of graduate transfers, Mack first told me he doesn’t particularly like the rule. Then he corrected himself toward a more practical ambivalence: it’s not that he is against the rule, it’s that he doesn’t want to run a program that depends on these imports as an annual source of talent—a more understandable stance given that his Cardinals roster this year includes three of them.
Mack’s employment of grad transfers in his first year at Louisville is indicative of a truth about his position: in a sport without true free agency or trades, it can be hard to win out of the gate while trying to build a new foundation for a program. While Mack did not take over a team in the bare-cupboard state many new coaches do—it was recovering from scandal and instability, not losing and a talent dearth, and interim coach David Padgett did an admirable job steadying things last season after Rick Pitino’s firing—he is nonetheless in the midst of an impressive first year at the Cardinals’ helm, piloting them to an 11–5 start (with two of those losses coming in OT) that has them in the first spot outside the current AP Top 25 poll. Included in those wins are an upset of No. 6 Michigan State and Saturday’s drubbing of No. 13 North Carolina—a 21-point win in Chapel Hill that the Cards controlled from start to finish.
Those mature imports have been part of Mack’s success. Samford grad Christen Cunningham, a guard, is third on the team in scoring with 10.6 points per game, while ex-Richmond guard Khwan Fore has settled into a steady rotational role off the bench. Another part has been getting buy-ins from holdovers like high-motor junior wing Dwayne Sutton, a double-figure scorer as a starter who played a reserve role last season, and go-to sophomore forward Jordan Nwora, who has made a second-year leap from 5.7 points in 12.0 minutes per game last season to 17.3 points in 30.7 minutes per game in this one.
This campaign has not been without its bumps, including stretches of weak defense and a disappointing overtime loss to Pitt last week, but all indications are that it will lead to Louisville’s return to the NCAA tournament, with a chance to win some games there too. With an impressive six-man recruiting class lined up for 2019, things are trending strongly in the right direction for Mack’s first season.
Although Mack may have take the most high-profile and high-pressure new job in the country this past spring, he is not alone in putting together an impressive first season at his new gig. With that in mind, and the regular season at roughly its chronological midpoint, let’s take a look at four other first-year coaches who have managed to hit the ground running at their new gigs.
Kermit Davis Jr. at Ole Miss
Last season: 12–19 overall, 5–13 in SEC, 108th in KenPom
This season: 13–3 overall, 3–1 in SEC, 37th in KenPom
After the Rebels plateaued in the late stages of Andy Kennedy’s 12-year tenure, they have suddenly transformed into the caliber of teams Davis was recently coaching at Middle Tennessee, where he led the Blue Raiders through a quietly strong move to Conference USA and pulled off first-round upsets in both the 2016 and ‘17 NCAA tournaments, highlighted by the ‘16 stunner of second-seeded Michigan State. Davis is winning with a team starting just one senior while two of his own recruits, four-star prospect Blake Hinson and onetime Middle Tennessee commit KJ Buffen, share time at forward. That bodes well for the quality of talent the Mississippi native can bring to Oxford.
Jeff Capel at Pittsburgh
Last season: 8–24 overall, 0–18 in ACC, 227th in KenPom
This season: 12–5 overall, 2–2 in ACC, 68th in KenPom
The Panthers’ reputation hasn’t improved enough that losing to them wasn’t seen as embarrassing by both Louisville and Florida State supporters (and their detractors), but Capel, hired from the Duke staff after previous head coaching stints at Oklahoma and VCU, has already swiftly corrected the avalanching of Pitt’s program during Kevin Stallings’ two-year tenure. He’s doing it while starting three freshmen who rank first, second, and fourth on the team in scoring. That none of that trio—guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowans, and forward Au’Diese Toney—project as one-and-done guys should have those in the Steel City hoping for even more in 2019–20.
Mike Davis at Detroit
Last season: 8–24 overall, 4–14 in the Horizon League, 319th in KenPom
This season: 8–10 overall, 5–1 in the Horizon League, 203rd in KenPom
Don’t let the Titans’ losing record fool you—despite taking their lumps during the nation’s 35th-hardest non-conference schedule, this is a team with very legitimate NCAA tournament hopes. With his son, freshman guard Antoine Davis, playing with the greenest of lights (he takes a whopping 40.0% of Detroit’s shots while on the floor, averaging 27.7 points per game and making 42.1% of his threes), the onetime Indiana coach has already guided the Titans past last season’s league-low win total in conference play, giving them worst-to-first hopes. The next hurdle will be getting past league favorite Northern Kentucky, who dealt Detroit its lone Horizon League loss so far, by 22 points.
Craig Smith at Utah State
Last season: 17–17 overall, 8–10 in Mountain West, 139th in KenPom
This season: 12–5 overall, 2–2 in Mountain West, 43rd in KenPom
Nevada may be the only Mountain West team getting national attention, but the league's best shot for a second NCAA bid may be the Aggies, whom the former South Dakota coach has elevated from slow (244th in tempo last season) and middling to a fairly quick (88th in tempo) contender. (Fresno State, under first-year coach Justin Hutson, could be in the mix as well.) Utah State ranks second nationally in defensive rebound rate, with two of its best rebounders by percentage standing 6' 5" (Diogo Brito) and 6' 6" (Dwayne Brown) and coming off the bench, suggesting a certain toughness.
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As you may have heard, the nation’s No. 1 team suffered not just a loss to Syracuse on Monday but also a major blow to its personnel when Duke point guard Tre Jones separated the AC joint in his right shoulder in a collision while diving for a loose ball, an injury which the Blue Devils announced after the game will sideline the freshman indefinitely. The insight Monday’s game offered into how this will impact Duke in the interim is somewhat limited by Cam Reddish being sidelined that night by an illness and the team’s obvious lack of opportunity to prepare a new version of its attack without him, but it is safe to say that this development is a very bad one for Duke’s title prospects.
The obvious first thought pertains to how the Blue Devils will compensate for the absence of their only real point guard in their rotation. R.J. Barrett often handled the ball with Jones out, with sophomore Alex O’Connell seeing the biggest uptick in playing time while manning Barrett’s usual two spot. (Intermittently used point guard Jordan Goldwire, who played eight minutes in the game, may also see the floor more going forward.) Putting the ball in Barrett’s hands more regularly would change the dynamics of Duke’s highly effective offense. But the Blue Devils may be just as impacted on the other end, where Jones’s pressure on opposing ballhandlers has been an essential aspect of Duke’s top-five defense, reflected both in Jones’s strong steal rate (3.7%, eighth among ACC players) and how often the disruptions he causes trigger turnovers of other varieties. (See: the setup to that Zion dunk.) Going forward, for as long as Jones is sidelined, that may be the question for Duke—not just who handles the ball, but who pressures it?
1. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are the last unblemished team in Big 12 play thanks in part to South Dakota grad transfer Matt Mooney, who had a season-high 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting against Texas on Saturday.
2. Villanova: After dispatching St. John’s and Creighton last week, the Wildcats appear to have reasserted themselves as the Big East favorite. Senior guard Phil Booth has scored 23 points or more in three straight games.
3. Maryland: All aboard the Bruno Fernando bandwagon. The Terrapins’ 6’ 10” sophomore center had his best game yet in a 25-point, 11-of-12-shooting, 13-rebound showing in a win over Indiana, the second of Maryland’s three Big Ten wins in the last seven days.
4. Kansas State: They’re not dead yet. With forward Dean Wade back on the floor, these Wildcats knocked off Iowa State in Ames over the weekend, perhaps getting their footing just when their season could have begun slipping away.
5. Wofford: The Terriers are 6–0 in the SoCon and have creeped into the KenPom top 40—and as of this month, guard Fletcher Magee has unseated Steph Curry as the league’s career leader in three-pointers.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Jakeenan Gant, Louisiana forward
The Missouri transfer shone again for the Ragin’ Cajuns, averaging 29.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, and 2.5 assists over two games last week, with a whopping 146 offensive efficiency rating, per kenpom.com.
Junior: Markus Howard, Marquette guard
Though he played just three minutes due to injury in the Golden Eagles’ last game, Howard was magnificent in their two other games over the past week, torching Creighton for 53 points on 26 field goal attempts and following that with 26 points, six rebounds, and six assists against Seton Hall.
Sophomore: Ja Morant, Murray State guard
In addition to giving Zion Williamson a challenge for dunk of the year, Morant dished out 18 assists against Tennessee Martin, then 14 against Southeast Missouri State, while averaging 21.5 points over those games. Draftniks, get acquainted.
Freshman: Jayden Gardner, East Carolina forward
The 6’ 6”, 245-pound Gardner has become the Pirates’ immediate focal point and in Sunday’s loss to UCF, it was easy to see why, as he scored 35 points on 21 field goal attempts while hauling in 20 rebounds. A few days earlier he had put up an efficient 18 points and eight boards against Memphis.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know one of the country’s best players a little better by asking them what they consider to be the best in various subjects. This week we welcome Michigan forward Ignas Brazdeikis, who is averaging 15.6 points and 5.4 rebounds for the No. 2 Wolverines. So, Ignas, tell us about the best...
...superpower to have. “You gotta go with being able to read minds. Then you get to know what everyone’s thinking about and you’re ahead of the game. You’ll beat out any other superpower because you know what they’re thinking and what they’re gonna do. [What would you want to use it for?] Definitely what my coaches are thinking about when I’m playing, or when I make a mistake.”
...topping on pizza. “Pineapple, for sure. I actually didn’t like it at first when I was a kid, but then I tried it from Domino’s. You add a little pepperoni on that and I just can’t resist it. It’s a huge controversy around my teammates and friends and family. I feel like you either love it or you hate it. There’s no in between. But there’s a good amount of people that love it.”
...secret talent you have. “I’m actually really good at ping-pong. That’s a huge talent of mine that does not get to be seen very often, unfortunately. I used to have a ping-pong table and I would literally play for hours with my friends and family. I just fell in love with the game. [Do you get to play with your teammates now?] We don’t really have a ping-pong table anywhere to play. It would be too easy anyways.”
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One to Watch: Virginia at Duke, Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN
Sure, the allure of this matchup takes a hit with the hosts not being at full strength, but this one will still be fascinating in its own right. If Syracuse’s 2–3 zone was hard for Duke to navigate without its point guard, just wait until it tries to take on Virginia’s vaunted Pack-Line defense, currently surrendering the second fewest points per possession in the country. (And did you see what the Hoos’ offense just did to ninth-ranked Virginia Tech?) A clash between a team best known for its sheer precocious talent and one most associated with its steady system, this game will also center on each side trying to assert its preferred tempo, with the Blue Devils looking to get out and run and the Cavaliers hoping to bog things down to a series of deliberate halfcourt battles. These are not only the ACC’s two best teams but two of the country’s very best as well. Injuries or not, you won’t want to miss this one.