(Photo of David Johnson: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - At long last, the 2020-21 college basketball season is finally set to begin. Following a long offseason where the state of the season was always thrown into question due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, 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 Evansville Purple Aces. Tipoff is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 25th at 4:00pm EST, and can be viewed on the ACC Network.
Here are a couple of the more significant storylines to follow ahead of Louisville's season-opener with Evansville:
Who's In, Who's Out?
Heading into this season, Louisville was already look radically different than they were a season ago. Thanks to graduation, the NBA Draft and the transfer portal, the Cardinals lost six of their top eight scoring options.
Then the injury bug decided to further complicate matters. Leading returning scorer & co-captain senior forward/center Malik Williams is out for twelve weeks due to a foot injury, and graduate transfer guard Charles Minlend is out six weeks due to a knee injury.
In fact, due to a combination of major & minor injuries, Louisville had been down to six scholarship players at one point during preseason practice. As far as the other injuries go, we have some idea as to who could still be on the sideline for the opener.
Sophomore guard Josh Nickelberry, who has been recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, could be doubtful as head coach Chris Mack said Nov. 18 that he "doesn't know when he will be at full strength or at least strength enough to be able to get on the court practice". Redshirt freshmen forward Jae'Lyn Withers has been nursing a sprained ankle, but Mack says the "likelihood is we'll get him back".
Someone who is back is sophomore forward Samuell Williamson, who was dealing with an aggravated patellar tendon. While the former McDonalds All-American admits that he is not quite 100% yet, he says he is "pretty close to that right now".
Based of how the Purple Aces began their 2019-20 campaign, you would think they were in store for a special season. They marched into Rupp Arena and took down the then-No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats on Nov. 12, 2019, and started the season with a 9-4 record.
However, things went south in a hurry for Evansville. Just six weeks after the momentous victory over the Wildcats, head coach Walter McCarty was placed on administrative leave pending an external investigation into reports of alleged sexual misconduct. He was later fired on Jan. 21, 2020.
As a result of McCarty's dismissal, the Purple Aces' performance took a nose dive. They lost their final nineteen games of the season to finish 9-23, including 0-18 in Missouri Valley Conference play. Among the MVC, Evansville ranked dead last in field-goal percentage (42.2%), field-goal percentage defense (47.2%), scoring defense (74.0) and scoring margin (-6.8).
Not only did Evansville experience a turbulent and disappointing 2019-20 campaign, but they also lost most of their playmakers.
Forward DeAndre Williams, who led the Purple Aces averaging 15.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists before a back injury forced him to miss the latter half of the season, transferred out of the program after the season ended.
Guards Sam Cunliffe & KJ Riley, the only other players who averaged double-digit points & 4.0+ rebounds per games, are also no longer in the picture. Cunliffe, a redshirt-senior, decided to opt out of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Riley graduated.
Guard Artur Labinowicz & forward John Hall, the Purple Aces' fourth & fifth leading scorers respectively, also transferred. That leaves forward Evan Kuhlman & guard Noah Frederking as Evansville's two returning top scorers, with the the duo averaging just 5.8 points per game a piece last season.
Unprecedented, Flexibility, and Other COVID Buzzwords
For those who are keeping track at home, this was far from Louisville's originally planned opponent for their season opener.
Back before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic pushed back the start of the 2020-21 college basketball season by 15 days, Louisville was originally supposed to face Western Kentucky. Fortunately, the Cardinals & Hilltoppers will still square off this season, just not until Dec. 1 for Louisville's fourth game of the season.
As part of the ensuing Wade Houston Tipoff Classic (informally known as the 'Louisville Bubble') that was set up after the pushed back start date, the new opening opponent was declared to be the Southern Illinois Salukis.
That was, until COVID intervened again. Positive tests within the SIU program forced them to withdraw from the event. Louisville almost had their second game altered as well. Seton Hall, who is currently slated to face the Cards two days after Evansville, announced on Nov. 11 that the program has paused all team activities due to positive tests within the program. However, Nov 27's game pitting the Pirates against the Cardinals is still on, tentatively speaking.
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