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Chris Mack Impressed With Louisville's Improvement, Pegues' Coaching During Absence

The Cardinals had a strong finish during Mack's six-game suspension, one where assistant coach Mike Pegues guided the program in his absence.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Chris Mack certainly had a lot of time to himself to start the 2021-22 season.

For the first six-games of the yea, the Louisville head coach served a university-imposed suspension due to his handling of the Dino Gaudio extortion attempt. Not only was he barred from being on the sideline to coach the Cardinals, but he couldn't even have contact with his own players and assistant coaches.

For the roughly three weeks that he was away from the program, admittedly, he didn't do much. The extent of his suspension activities consisted of working out at Planet Fitness, and dropping off and picking up his kids from school. 

Of course, from the comfort of his own home, he also watched all six of Louisville's games that he was barred from. Unsurprisingly, the fourth-year head coach of the Cardinals said that it was surreal experience not being there to experience it all first hand.

"It was weird," he said. "Watching your team on television is very strange, but then not really having much feel outside of watching a press conference, or maybe see a player to develop in that in the next game, or knowing really what what's taking place in the locker room and on the practice court. That was really strange."

Something else that was strange was watching his team struggle right out of the gates. While growing pains were to be expected, as Louisville welcomed eight newcomers and installed a completely new offensive system, the Cardinals looked disheveled during their four-game home-stand to open up the season.

The offense had issues executing the new-look, high-tempo offense, which made way for stagnant sets and bad shot selection. The defense had trouble against most players on the drive, and struggled to defend the three-point line.

Rebounding was developing into a huge red flag, as was consistency, and even their overall toughness and hustle was even called into question. The Cardinals went 3-1 in their opening stretch of the year - which included a bad overtime to Furman - but could have easily been 2-2 after having to hold off Detroit Mercy.

But ahead of their appearance in the Baha Mar Hoops Bahamas Championship, the program made significant efforts to fix these trends. Acting head coach Mike Pegues held a spirited film session, the players held a player-only meeting, and after a chance to decompress once down in the Bahamas, it culminated into their best practice of the season.

Those efforts paid dividends on the court. Louisville opened up the event with a 72-58 rout of Mississippi State, a game where they 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.

This dramatic improvement in such a short amount of time is what Mack says is his biggest takeaway during his suspension.

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"Just a big step forward that our team took in the Bahamas," he said. "There were some roller coaster rides throughout the few weeks that the coach Mike and staff had to deal with. I thought their their messaging was received really well. Our team improved greatly in some areas that they were really deficient early on. 

Defense and rebounding, the two areas in which Louisville struggled the most to start the year, is what helped them rebound (no pun intended) and get back in the right direction. Mississippi State and Maryland were held to a collective 35.7 from the floor and 17.2 percent on three-pointers, with the Cardinals out-rebounding them 98-63. In the four games prior, Louisville's three-point defense was 32.7 percent, while the rebound margin was just 2.8 per game.

But the improved on-court product wasn't the only thing Mack was impressed with during his time away. He believes that Mike Pegues, who served as the acting head coach during the suspension, did "an amazing job" of coaching and guiding the Cardinals.

"He's had a voice for a long time alongside me, which is what gave me the confidence to make him the head coach," Mack said. "But being able to have your own voice, your own beliefs that mirrors how we do things as a program, I think he did an incredible job."

Mack said that, while he would not to lose Pegues, it was a chance for the longtime assistant to display his abilities as a head coach. So far, it's an impressive resume: 5-1 with a team consisting of eight newcomers with no prior games together under their belts, including wins over Ben Howland- and Mark Turgeon-coached squads.

Of course, even with the recent dramatic improvements, Louisville still isn't perfect. They're still only shooting 42.5 percent from the floor, the pace at which they want to play had slowed down considerably in the Bahamas, and turnovers are still a bit of an issue at 14.8 per game.

"We still have a ways to go. What you've done on Thursday and Saturday of last week, doesn't mean that you're going to do it on Wednesday," Mack said. "It's got to be a habit, it's got to be important. That's our job to continue to make sure our players understand that."

Mack's first game back will be Wednesday's matchup at Michigan State as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Tip-off against the Spartans is set for 7:15 p.m.

(Photo of Chris Mack: Scott Utterback - Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

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