LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Louisville men's basketball program certainly had a rocky start to the 2021-22 season.
While the Cardinals did come away with a 3-1 record over the course of their four-game home-stand to open up the new season, the actual on-court product on both ends of the floor was concerning.
Offensively, Louisville had trouble executing their new-look offense, leading to stagnant sets and some bad shot selection. Defensively, they had trouble against pretty much anyone who decided to drive right to the rim, while also developing a tendency to leave the perimeter wide open. Overall toughness and hustle was even called into question, particularly with rebounding.
Consistency was also becoming a red flag. After falling in overtime to Furman, Louisville responded with a high-energy effort against Navy, downing the Midshipmen with relative ease. In their next outing against Detroit Mercy, instead of carrying momentum from the Navy game, Louisville had to hold on for dear life for a win - needing a go-ahead three-pointer from Noah Locke in the final two minutes .
In hindsight, these things should have probably been expected. Eight of Louisville's 14 scholarship players are newcomers, and the team had been installing a high tempo offense ran by assistant coach Ross McMains. Because of the time it took to work on that, the defense lagged behind in the offseason.
Oh, and they didn't have their head coach.
In late August, the University of Louisville suspended head coach Chris Mack for the first six games of the season due to his handling of the Dino Gaudio extortion attempt. U of L stated that Mack "failed to follow University guidelines, policies, and procedures in handling the matter".
Assistant coach Mike Pegues was designated as the acting head coach in Mack's absence, and even he was not immune to criticism. While Louisville has a deep bench, and had every intention of utilizing it due to the fast-paced nature of their new system, many fans questioned his substitution patterns, and the effect it had on the flow of the game.
For the final two games of Mack's suspension, Louisville went down to Nassau for the Baha Mar Hoops Bahamas Championship. They would be facing a noticeable uptick in competition, starting the four-team event with Mississippi State, then following that up against either Richmond or Maryland.
But instead of Louisville continuing on recent trends, they flipped a switch in the Bahamas.
The Cardinals opened up the event with a 72-58 rout of Mississippi State, a game where Louisville lead by as much as 28 in the second half, then followed that up with a convincing 63-55 win over Maryland to clinch the Bahamas title.
"Tremendously excited for this group," Pegues said. "Given everything that we've been through to start this season, obviously not having our head coach here to meet us, to have everybody in our locker room. Every player, scholarship, walk-on, every support staff member, every assistant coach stepped up."
Defense and rebounding, Louisville's two biggest issues to start the season, is what actually helped them take home their 31st regular season tournament title. Mississippi State and Maryland was held to a collective 35.7 from the floor and 17.2 percent on three-pointers, and with Louisville out-rebounding them 98-63.
This wasn't an accident. Leading up to the event, Pegues held a spirited film session, the player held a player-only meeting, and they also had a chance to decompress once they got to the Bahamas. Essentially, Louisville focused on their commitment to upholding their baseline expectations, and it paid massive dividends.
"No matter the runs, the opponent, the location. Just bring your hard hat, bring a defensive mindset, bring a mindset of protecting your backbone and getting on other teams' backboard," Pegues said. "If you do that, you give yourself a chance to beat anybody, no matter how many shots you make."
Plus, Mack is finally making his return.
His six-game suspension, during which he was barred from having any contact whatsoever with the players and coaches, officially ended at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 28. The staff is expected to have a meeting on Sunday, and Mack will make his return to practice on Monday.
He certainly has his work cut out for him right out of the gates. Louisville's first game with Mack back on the sideline will be on the road in East Lansing against Michigan State, as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
"That it's gonna be a worthy opponent as usual at home. They're really good, well coached by a Hall of Fame coach. I'll let Coach Mack deal with that one," Pegues quipped.
Louisville does look better, but they still aren't perfect. The Cardinals shot just 38.2 percent in the Bahamas, are 42.5 percent for the season, and sport an offense that ranks just 93rd according to KenPom. But with Mack coming back, and the team already on the rise, it seems that Louisville is shaping up to have a much better season than we thought this time last week.
(Photo of Mike Pegues, Louisville Players: Jamie Rhodes -USA TODAY Sports)
You can follow Louisville Report for future coverage by liking us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram:
You can also follow Deputy Editor Matthew McGavic at @Matt_McGavic on Twitter