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Let’s meet new Louisville basketball coach Chris Mack

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A lengthy look at the new face of Cardinal basketball.

Xavier v Arizona Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the worst kept secret in Louisville finally became public knowledge: Chris Mack will become the Cardinals’ third full-time head basketball coach since 1971. The previous two brought the Derby City national championships and are members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Those are large shoes to fill.

The first Louisville basketball coaching search in Card Chronicle history was always going to be different than the one we all went through (or at least most of us went through) in 2001. The reason is obvious. There was no Rick Pitino-esque candidate to pluck, no available coach who had already proven he could win the biggest of prizes with the biggest of programs. Regardless of who it hired, U of L was always going to be making an educated guess here.

With that being the case, I thought it was terrific to see this get done quickly and smoothly. There was no public rejection, no leaks or botched meetings, no embarrassment whatsoever for a program that has had a hard time avoiding that sort of thing for the past few years.

So now it’s time to dive into the new frontman for Louisville basketball, the man who is hopefully going to turn March in Louisville back to the most wonderful time of the year.

Let’s meet Chris Mack.

Basic Background

Mack was born in Cleveland, but grew up in North College Hill, a suburb of Cincinnati. He attended St. Xavier High School in Cincy and starred on the basketball team, earning Cincinnati Post Metro Player of the Year honors in 1988. He spent two seasons as a player at Evansville before transferring home and wrapping up his college career at Xavier.

Mack’s first head coaching gig was at Mount Notre Dame High School, an all-female prep school just north of Cincinnati. He then landed an assistant coaching gig at Xavier in 1999 before following Skip Prosser to Wake Forest in 2001. He came back to Xavier in 2004, serving as Sean Miller’s top assistant before Miller bounced and Mack was named head coach in 2009.

As you may have heard, Mack’s wife, Christi, is a Louisville native. She played basketball at Holy Cross, finishing second in the Kentucky Miss Basketball voting to Jaime Walz, the sister of U of L women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz. Christi went on to star at the University of Dayton, where she is a member of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. Chris and Christi have three children, daughters Lainee (12) and Hailee (11), and son Brayden (3).

NCAA Tournament Success

This is the biggest checkmark in Mack’s corner.

Though he inherited a program on solid footing thanks to Sean Miller, Mack still deserves praise for taking Xavier to the NCAA tournament eight times in nine seasons. In half of those seasons, the Musketeers played their way into the tournament’s second weekend. They made the Sweet 16 in 2010, 2012 and 2015, and crashed the Elite Eight in 2017.

Struggles as a Higher Seed

The only issue with Mack’s success in the Big Dance is that it has almost always come when it wasn’t supposed to. His deepest run came in 2017 with one of his most uneven teams, a No. 11 seed that finished 9-9 in the Big East (although injuries played a big part in those regular season struggles). The 2010 and 2015 Sweet 16 teams were No. 6 seeds that were ultimately bounced by 2-seeds, and the 2012 Sweet 16 squad was a 10-seed.

Where Mack’s teams have struggled has been when they were supposed to make deep runs. This year, of course, the team earned the first No. 1 seed in program history, but was bounced in the second round by a Florida State team we were all very familiar with. In 2016, the second-seeded Musketeers also lost in the second round to 7-seed Wisconsin thanks to Bronson Koenig’s final minute heroics.

A 2011 first round loss to No. 11 seed Marquette is the only other time Mack has lost to a team seeded worse than his in the tournament.

Mack’s Style

Mack’s teams at Xavier have been good at putting up points, especially in recent years. He’s not afraid to push pace, and loves for his teams to run and score in transition. In the half court, Mack runs a continuity pick and roll offense (or continuity ball screen offense).

Here’s an exhaustive (hand-written) pdf that breaks down the philosophy. Or you can check it out in these videos.

He loves using big guard to run these sets, so expect him and his staff to make that a priority on the recruiting trail.

Defensively, Mack employs the same pack line defense that we’ve seen from Virginia. He learned it from Sean Miller, and as you might expect, it doesn’t look quite as pristine as the one we’ve seen from the Cavaliers over the years.

Here’s Mack talking defense.

Defensive Struggles

This was the most consistent complaint I heard about Mack over the past week. It’s also the most understandable.

Louisville fans are used to the Cardinals being one of the best defensive teams in the country on a yearly basis.

Over the past nine seasons, here’s where Louisville has finished out of 351 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings: 78, 3, 1, 1, 5, 4, 2, 8, 39

The two highest numbers on that list, unsurprisingly, represent the two worst Louisville teams of the last decade.

During Mack’s tenure at Xavier, here’s where his teams have ranked in that same category: 47, 58, 49, 64, 76, 56, 22, 67, 60.

Xavier was 316th in the country this season in forcing turnovers, 211th in block percentage, and 226th in steal percentage. The hope here has to be that with superior size and athleticism to work with at Louisville, the pack line defense will be better.

Love of (and success in) Rivalries

Mack has never been afraid to antagonize a rival, a fact that was even evident in his goodbye letter to Xavier fans on Tuesday.

Ironically enough — given the fact that his wife went to school there — Dayton was the first arch-rival Mack played villain against.

When Mack was at Evansville, one of the Purple Aces’ main rivals was the University of Dayton. During his sophomore season, Mack nearly started a brawl between the two teams when he, under his head coach’s orders, purposefully threw the ball into an opposing player’s face in order to avoid a 5-second call. It was the second time the act had been done to the player (though the first by Mack).

The referee called a technical foul on Mack, the Dayton Daily News said. The teams shoved each other and the atmosphere was charged, but no fighting took place.

Mack was the only Purple Ace who tried to shake hands after the Flyers’ 23-point win, according to the Dayton Daily News story.

He told its reporter he was sorry, and that he was trying to throw the ball over Coffee’s head – but under the bottom of the backboard – to beat the five-second count.

Mack last week said the latter comments were meant to protect his coach. He took the game to heart and said the Coffee incident contributed to his decision to transfer.

Crews, who became Army’s head coach in 2002, on Monday supported Mack’s account of the game. It sure was a long time ago, Crews said, and he didn’t remember the first ball thrown at Coffee, but Mack did what he was told.

“He followed orders,” Crews said.

Crews said he warned his players then that Dayton defenders were going to keep crossing the line, per their coach’s instruction. If officials weren’t going to whistle them for violations, UD’s players would continue the behavior, Crews said.

Coffee said he never crossed he end line and went out of bounds. He didn’t have to, he said, because his “arms and legs were long enough” to defend the pass.Lessons learned

Once he returned to Evansville, the exchange weighed on Mack. He composed an apology to Coffee and slipped it in the mail.

“For him to write the letter … I definitely didn’t expect that. He hoped I would forgive him,” Coffee said. “I thought that was very classy. I never held any ill-will against him.”

The next year Mack transferred to Xavier, where he went on to be a two-time captain. He said he loved Crews as a coach, but “those type of things” led him out of Evansville.

“I felt bad. I want to compete and I want to win but I’m not going to do it that way,” Mack said.

Coffee today wishes only the best for Mack and was congratulatory about his new role at XU. Although Mack has moved on, too, he won’t forget.

“Not only did I learn a lesson as a player but I really learned more of a lesson as a coach, dealing with kids,” Mack said. “It’s about competing and being nasty and tough, but it’s also about shaking their hand and doing it the right way.”

Time doesn’t always sway those who hold grudges. Despite the fact that his wife, Christi, was a Flyer, Mack probably won’t get a warm reception the first time he leads XU at UD Arena.

To that end, two things are certain: The Xavier-Dayton animosity will live on, and Mack – a Musketeer through-and-through – doesn’t expect to make any new Dayton friends. The Coffee incident ensured as much.

“I became the villain at Dayton,” Mack said. “And I’ve got no problem with that.”

Mack continued to be a thorn in Dayton’s side when he became the head coach at hated rival Xavier, going 8-4 against the Flyers.

The rivalry series ended when Xavier left the Atlantic 10 for a spot in the Big East, a spot than Dayton believed it deserved to get. The two teams played one another in the championship game of the 2015 Advocare Invitational. Instead of wearing his normal suit for the game, Mack chose to wear a Big East pullover. Xavier won, 90-61.

Then there’s the Xavier-Cincinnati rivalry, the only college hoops rivalry that I think comes close to Louisville-Kentucky in terms of pure vitriol.

Mack was on the sidelines for the 2011 brawl. He also made headlines for defending Xavier player JP Macura after Macura got into it with Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. Cronin claimed that Macura had told him “f—k off” multiple times during the game.

A scroll through Mack’s “liked” tweets on Twitter shows that he’s not afraid to passive aggressively deal with rival fans.

He also liked a bunch of tweets about how awful the fourth and fifth foul calls on JP Macura in the FSU game were. This is an extremely Mike Rutherford move and I love it.

Mack went 6-3 against Cincinnati, with four of those six wins coming by double figures.

Big East Success

It’d be one thing if Mack had put up gaudy win totals in the Atlantic 10. It’s another that he did it in the Big East.

The Big East has been a top four conference in college basketball since Xavier joined up in 2013-14. Over that time, the Musketeers have compiled a total conference record of 105-49, and never finished worse than 9-9. This past year, Mack’s team went 15-3 and won the league outright.

Struggles Against Villanova

The only troubling thing about Mack’s time in the Big East has been his struggles with Villanova, the program that has the most in common with the top-tier schools in the ACC. In 11 games against Jay Wright, Mack is just 1-10, and lost nine of those 10 games by double digits.

To be fair, our last full-time head coach had his own persistent struggles against certain programs that, at least on paper, seemed to make little sense.

His Former Players Love Him

It wasn’t hard to see that today.

Relationship with the Media

This is one of those things that shouldn’t matter, but absolutely does.

Mack has a tight relationship with a number of the biggest names in the college basketball media. For a program that has spent a solid chunk of the last three years with its own section on ESPN’s bottom line crawl, this could be a breath of fresh air.

And if you don’t think this is a real thing, look at how Kansas has been treated the last few years. Bill Self is beloved by the biggest names in the college basketball media, and so things like having a billion off the court incidents in 2016-17 and the mystery that is whatever happened with Billy Preston this year never received the level of attention it would have at virtually any other high-profile program.

Again, this shouldn’t matter, but in college hoops, it absolutely does.

His Family is Awesome

Family is a huge deal for Mack (in case you hadn’t heard), and his is awesome.

His daughters have been fixtures at NCAA tournament games for years now.

Mack’s oldest daughter has also been known to go on recruiting trips with him, bringing a notebook with her and taking notes throughout.

They’re going to be a ton of fun.

Can he recruit at this level?

This was going to be the first question for any new Louisville head coach without prior experience at a top 10 all-time program.

Mack recruited well enough at Xavier, landing a top 11 class a couple of years ago and a top 25 class three times in the last six years. The standards will obviously be higher at U ofL, and Mack has it the ground running. He reached out to Romeo Langford just hours after landing the gig, and since then has been offering scholarships to seemingly every uncommitted five star in the 2018 and 2019 classes.

He’s bringing Bill Murray

Murray’s son, Luke, has been an assistant under Mack for the past three seasons, and Murray has been a noticeable presence a Musketeer games over that span. With reports already out there that assistants Luke Murray and Mike Pegues will be coming with Mack to Louisville, that means we’re likely to see Bill Murray donning red inside the KFC Yum Center at some point in the near future.

There’s no word yet on what Mack plans to do as far as his third assistant is concerned. Much of that likely depends on whether or not his former associate head coach, Travis Steele, winds up getting the head coaching gig at Xavier.

Final Thoughts

Mack will kill it at his introductory press conference and any press conference that will follow between now and the beginning of the season. If he can convince key members of the current roster to stick around and land a high-profile grad transfer and/or 2018 recruit at some point in these next couple of months, then 2018-19 still has the potential to be a fun season.

The bigger question is whether or not Mack is the guy who, five years from now, will have Louisville back in a position of national prominence. It’s fine to not compete for a national title of Final Four for a few years given the current (and potentially future) state of things, but eventually U of L fans are going to want to be in the hunt. There’s no way to know for sure whether or not Mack is the person to lead the program through the muck and return it to the place it expects to be, but it’s going to be fun finding out.

Given the crop of candidates out there, I don’t think Louisville fans could have asked for much more here. The program, from its weakest position in nearly two decades, still targeted a candidate from a successful major conference program that just so happened to be his alma mater, and plucked him away with relative ease.

Louisville basketball is still Louisville basketball. Let’s get this thing going.