LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In just two short weeks, Louisville men's basketball will officially be back. After a pair of exhibitions to serve as tuneup games, the Cardinals will tip-off the 2021-22 season on Tuesday, Nov. 9 against Southern.
It's a team that will look markedly different from last year due to the amount of new faces. The players' roster consists of more newcomers than returners, and the two of three assistant coaches will be in brand new roles with Louisville.
The program boasts a handful of returners, but one in particular won't be on the sidelines to start out the season - head coach Chris Mack.
In late August, the university announced that Mack would be suspended without pay from Nov. 8 to Nov. 27. It is in relation to the extortion attempt by ex-Cardinals assistant coach Dino Gaudio, with UofL stating Mack "failed to follow University guidelines, policies, and procedures in handling the matter".
During that span, Mack will be prohibited from having any contact with the coaching staff or players, as well as forfeit approximately $221,000. As you can guess, he will not be on the sidelines coaching Louisville for their first six games of the 2021-22 season.
"I don't know what it'll be like, I've never experienced it," Mack said during the program's media day last week. "I don't think I can do a whole lot. You can't do anything. I'll take my kids to school, and sit and wait till I pick them up."
Soon after the announcement of the suspension, Mack designated assistant coach Mike Pegues to be the acting head coach while he is out. Pegues is heading into his 10th year as an assistant coach under Mack - six while at Xavier and now four at Louisville. Mack not only thinks Pegues is a head coach in waiting, but he goes as far to "trust him with anything".
"He knows our system, he's been in all the same staff meetings, on court practices and post practice meetings," Mack said. "He has a great feel for our offense as well. (Assistant Coach) Ross (McMains) is obviously an expert at it, but Mike will do a great job in my absence, I have no doubt."
Ahead of said absence, Mack and the rest of his staff have been busy making the preparations necessary to ensure a seamless transition from Mack, to Pegues, and back again. With exhibitions against Kentucky State and West Georgia on the horizon ahead of the regular season, the coaching staff plans on using those games as sans-Mack warmups of their own, to an extent.
For example, one way the coaching staff is preparing to be without Mack, is to get more in-depth with scouting reports. While that will undoubtedly help Pegues get up to speed, it will also help the newly-hired McMains understand how Louisville conducts a scouting report, and how it's presented to players - whether that's the actual on-court personnel, or what actions the opposition likes to run.
An added emphasis is being put on the little things while Mack is there, so that Pegues, McMains and fellow assistant Kahil Fennell can sail the ship as smoothly as they can when he isn't.
"Whether it's pregame timing, two days leading up, warm up, all that stuff, we'll try to replicate as best we can so that he understands sort of the rhythm that we're in," Mack said.
Fortunately, Louisville won't be tasked with non-conference juggernauts right out of the gates. The Cardinals open up with Southern, followed by Furman, Navy and Detroit Mercy - four teams that all rank outside the KenPom preseason Top 100.
Pegues and Co. do have a couple worthy challengers they will face, however. Their first game of the Baha Mar Hoops Bahamas Championship in Nassau will come against a decent Mississippi State squad, and they could possibly face 21st-ranked Maryland in the next game. Mack will make his return on Wednesday, Dec. 1 at Michigan State for the ACC/Big 10 Challenge.
Considering Louisville is in the process of implementing a completely new offensive system, one could be led to believe that this is where the Cardinals could see bumps in the road. Mack doesn't share this sentiment.
"I think that the offense is in good hands," he said. "Ross was instrumental in making the change, so I don't worry about that. If I see things on the floor that are sort of happening. I just gotta hope for a couple weeks they're getting addressed."
Mack admits that he will be "on pins and needles" come Nov. 9 when his team officially starts the regular season, but doesn't feel any additional urgency for when he comes back. Mostly, this is because he holds the belief that you have to be urgent every day.
Louisville might be without their figurehead for roughly the first month of the upcoming season, but they are doing everything in the power to make sure this potentially turbulent period goes off without a hitch.
(Photo of Chris Mack, Louisville players: Sam Upshaw Jr. - Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC)
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