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Points of Emphasis: Louisville vs. Southern

Here are the more significant storylines to follow ahead of Louisville's men's basketball's season-opener with the Southern.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - At long last, the 2020-21 college basketball season is finally here. Following another long offseason and a return to some normalcy, game day for the Louisville men's basketball program is upon us. The Cardinals' first test of the season comes in the form of the Southern Jaguars. Tipoff is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 9th at 9:00pm EST, and can be viewed on ACC Network Extra.

Here are a couple of the more significant storylines to follow ahead of Louisville's season-opener with Evansville:

New Faces Aplenty

Heading into this season, Louisville looks radically different than they were a season ago. Thanks to the NBA Draft, the transfer portal and graduation, the Cardinals saw six players depart the program. This included ACC Player of the Year runner-up Carlik Jones and 2021 draft pick David Johnson - their two leading scorers.

The program was able to replace that departing talent with eight newcomers: D1 transfers Matt Cross, Jarrod West, Noah Locke and Mason Faulkner; JUCO transfers El Ellis and Sydney Curry; and high school prospects Roosevelt Wheeler and Mike James.

Fortunately, Louisville does have solid returning talent, as four players who logged starts in 2020-21 are back. Former ACC Sixth Man of the Year forward/center Malik Williams is one, as is 2020-21 ACC All-Freshman selection forward Jae'Lyn Withers. Samuell Williamson and Dre Davis also return, and will compete for significant minutes on the wing.

But that's not the only shakeup Louisville saw. Soon after the end of last season, head coach Chris Mack informed assistant coaches Luke Murray and Dino Gaudio they would not be retained. Director of Basketball Operations Kahil Fennell was promoted to one of the vacant spots, while New Zealand National Team assistant coach Ross McMains was brought in to fill the other.

New-Look Offense

Speaking of McMains, he was arguably the biggest acquisition for the Cardinals in the offseason. Mack wanted to make drastic changes to Louisville's painfully slow offense, which ranked 300th in tempo last season, and McMains was the answer.

Known as an offensive tactician, McMains brings a style which is predicated on the ball always moving, accompanied with an emphasis on an extremely fast pace and spacing.

Another problem Mack sought out to address was three-point shooting. Louisville shot just 30.8 percent from beyond the arc last season, a mark which ranked 298th out of 357 Division I programs. Out of the eight newcomers, six shot above 40.0 percent on three-pointers on their respective teams.

During exhibition play, this overhauled offense was on full display. The Cardinals out-scored Kentucky State and West Georgia 197-96, shooting 51.9 percent from the floor, 41.2 percent on three-point attempts and averaged 75 possessions per game.

Passing the Reigns

As many know by now, Louisville's game against Southern will mark the first of a six-game suspension for Mack, stemming from the extortion attempt by Gaudio. Louisville concluded that Mack was a victim, but "failed to follow University guidelines, policies, and procedures in handling the matter".

As a result, assistant coach Mike Pegues - the lone returning assistant from last year - will serve as the interim coach of the Cardinals in Mack's absence. Since the suspension's announcement, Mack has been busy preparing the program for this, and has utmost faith in both the players and Pegues himself.

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They'll be in good hands with Mike (Pegues) ... he knows how to coach players. He knows how to organize a team. He'll have great messages when he's both in front of people, and in the practice facility," Mack said.

Swiper No Swiping!

Southern is expected to be one of the better teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, but in the grand scheme of Division I college basketball, they are likely the worst team Louisville will face all season.

Against one of the worst strength of schedules in all of D1 (345th), the Jaguars shot just 43.2 percent from the field and scored 69.8 points per game, while allowing teams to shoot 42.0 percent and score 70.3.

But if there is any way Southern will pull off a monumental upset, it will be because of their ability to force turnovers, as it has been a hallmark of Sean Woods' style as a head coach. Last season, the Jaguars forced 8.2 steals and 15.32 turnovers per game - the 33rd- and 45th-best marks in D1.

Mack stated during the preseason that because of Louisville's new offensive approach, there would be a certain amount of turnovers he would be willing to live with. But if Southern forces enough, especially since the new offense still a work in progress, it could pave a way for them to come out on top.

The Jaylen Saddler Show

Southern sports a few solid players, such returning forward Terrell Williams and North Carolina A&T transfer forward Tyrone Lyons, but where Louisville's scouting report will undoubtedly begin is with preseason Second Team All-SWAC selection Jaylen Saddler.

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound point guard is the only returner who averaged double figures last season, putting up 11.1 points per game - second on the team behind Samkelo Cele, who is no longer with Southern.

Even more impressive than his ability to score, is his decision making on both ends of the floor. His 5.3 assists per game was 36th in all of D1, and his 2.07 assist-to-turnover ratio was 83rd.

Over on defense, he was partially responsible for Southern's success stealing the ball, as his 25 steals was second-most on the team to Cele's 32, and seven more than the next player.

(Photo of Dre Davis: Alton Strupp - Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

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