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Coach Chris Mack returns excitement to Louisville basketball, earns praise from Kentucky’s Calipari

By Russ Brown
Kentucky Today

Chris Mack’s first Louisville basketball team is only seven games into the season, but he and the Cardinals have already attracted the attention of a notable peer.

Kentucky coach John Calipari complimented Mack on his radio show Monday night and seemed to indicate that he has given some thought to Dec. 29, when UK will face UofL in the KFC Yum! Center.

“Those guys west of us, I’m talking about Louisville, are doing a great job,” Calipari said. “They’re playing extremely hard. Those guys are really fighting to win. We’re going to have a hard time winning up there.”

Maybe so, but one way or another you’re not going to hear Mack breathe a word about the much-anticipated introduction to his new arch-rival this far in advance. He won’t talk about an important game four days in the future, let alone one nearly a month away.

His single-mindedness was evident Tuesday afternoon during his press conference to preview Wednesday night’s 7 o’clock home game against Central Arkansas (3-4).

Mack was asked if he’d had a chance to meet UofL’s new football coach, Scott Satterfield, yet.

“We have a new coach?” Mack deadpanned. “I have no idea. I worry about Central Arkansas. I have all the confidence in the world that Vince (athletics director Vince Tyra) hired the right guy, but no I haven’t talked to anybody outside my coaching staff and my family the last couple days.”

Chris Mack has restored excitement into the Louisville basketball program. (Louisville Athletics photo)

Besides Central Arkansas, Mack has obviously also given a lot of thought to his own team, which is on a mini-roll with two impressive victories. First, came a 82-78 overtime against No. 9 Michigan State last Wednesday followed three days later by a 70-65 win at Seton Hall.

In both cases, the Cards (5-2) remained cool-headed in the tense final moments and made all the right plays. As nice as those wins were, Mack could use a breather before his club heads into another tough challenge Saturday afternoon against Indiana in Assembly Hall.

“It’s good to see back-to-back really close games where we get the ball to the right guys and they make their free throws down the stretch and we didn’t have any blown assignments,” Mack said. “I don’t know if it helps my health, but I’m sure our guys are used to it.

“We still made mistakes. There were some things we did well and there were some things we did poorly, and hopefully, we continue to learn. Never accept in victory what you wouldn’t accept in defeat.”

UofL has been particularly impressive lately on defense, which is where Mack is putting his emphasis.

The Cards were able to contain the Spartans’ big scorers, limiting guards Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston to 8-of-25 shooting overall, including only 3-of-11 from 3-point range. UofL also scored 18 points off 17 Michigan State turnovers and met another major goal in stopping the Spartans’ deadly fast break cold.

Then against Seton Hall, UofL held the Pirates to 33.3 percent shooting (11-33) in the second half and 3-of-18 (16.7 percent) for the game from beyond the arc.

“I just think defense wins games and your offense from time to time is going to struggle,” Mack said. “You’re going to have times when you miss shots and if that’s what you’re relying on to win games you’re going to be in for a rude awakening some nights.

“So, we want to get to the point where we pride ourselves each and every single night getting defensive stops. We’re going to see all different styles of play and I think the team that can put together consecutive stops on the defensive end puts themselves in position to win, so it’s certainly valued in our program.”

Offensively, balance has been a strong suit for UofL. Against Seton Hall, Dwayne Sutton was the only double-figure scorer with 12 points – all in the first half – but six other players got six points or more and all 10 who played scored.

The last time UofL won with just one player in double figures was a 47-46 win vs. Loyola Marymount on Dec. 14, 1949.

Louisville’s defensive focus against Central Arkansas will be on the Bears’ perimeter. Many of their attempts come from 3-point range, where they’re shooting 39.3 percent (59-150). Four players have hit 11 or more treys and those same four are averaging in double figures. DeAndre Jones, a 5-11 sophomore point guard, is the team’s leading scorer at 14.7 points per game.

“He has the ball in his hands a lot, so his coach uses him as a way to generate shots for his teammates,” Mack says of Jones. “It’s one thing if you’re a waterbug point guard but you can’t shoot because there are a lot of those type of guys out there.

“But he shoots it as such a high level and he looks at his shot, so he really puts a lot of pressure on the defense. He’s crafty, he’s really, really quick and he shoots at a high level and generally makes the right play. So we’ve got a really good point guard – maybe not a household name – but a really good point guard coming into our arena tomorrow.”

Central Arkansas is 0-4 on the road this season, losing to Missouri (68-55), Pittsburgh (97-71), Troy (82-77) and Saint Louis (73-61).

“I just want to continue to get better,” Mack said. “We value every single game. There’s not a game on our schedule that we don’t prepare our players for and go out with the expectation of playing harder than the opponent, so let’s hope that happens Wednesday night.”

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at www.0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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