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Transcript: Chris Mack talks about Louisville’s surprising end to the season

There is no joy in Louisville.

Virginia Tech v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Chris Mack addressed the media on Monday afternoon and talked about Louisville’s exclusion from the NCAA tournament, its status as a replacement team, and the program’s plans for the immediate future. You can see video of the press conference here.

(On the experience of not seeing Louisville’s name pop up Sunday night)

It was incredibly difficult. It was not the news we wanted to hear. We had gathered the team a little differently this year because of covid. We were in the practice facility, we were spaced out, had dinner for the guys. It was a tough show to watch and not be a part of. It’s not certainly something that we were, don’t want to say prepared for, but was difficult. As certain teams that had been mentioned as bubble teams and maybe below us or maybe slightly above us, as they were going off the board it gave you a sickening feeling. As much as the players were aware, I think the coaches were even more aware, having been in it and having an eye on all those things that affect you. So tough moment. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a room where we didn’t get in in the 24 years I’ve been a coach or a player.

(On the disappointment of not making the tournament)

It’s incredibly disappointing. It’s everything we worked for in the off-season, it’s everything you prepare for to be a part of March Madness. But it didn’t happen, it wasn’t reality. We came here as a coaching staff to be part of the big tournament. I’d tell you there are a lot of things that go into play. Had we been selected we would have been the youngest, most inexperienced team out of the 68 teams. We replaced all five starters off last year’s top 15 team, all five, and it’s not just as simple as pressing a button and saying we want to be a tournament team again. You have to earn it, you have to work for it.

With an incredibly young team, not a true offseason, an inability to work with our players in the offseason, and the two covid problems our team experienced. Malik Williams, who was our best defensive player and the voice of our team goes down for basically the entire year. A grad transfer who we were expecting to play a significant role, Charles Minlend, got hurt and never was quite the same. All those things equate to us sitting here and not being a part of March Madness. But I think we know what we need to do and where we’re going, but at the same time yesterday was very, very difficult. When we took over here three years ago it was a mess, a mess.

We knew there would be some tough days and yesterday was maybe the toughest we’ve had. But we understood the challenge, and it still is a challenge. When you lose five starters off last year’s top 15 team, have a bunch of guys that are inexperienced, and then you lose a couple key experienced players, you’re not just going to roll into the NCAA Tournament like things have been in the past at times. That’s just reality and our staff is committed to make sure we get back to where this program’s used to being.

(On being named the first replacement team, and what they could have done differently this season to avoid this)

I would tell you as far as being a replacement team, I think that’s nice language that the NCAA put out. It’s a great safeguard for them in the tournament. But the reality of it is, I don’t see any team missing the NCAA Tournament, at least when it once it begins. Now, once it begins, that could be a different story. But let’s face it, if you can still have five players, not even have to have a coach on the sideline. Most rosters with with walk ons and scholarship players, are 16 or 17 players. I just have a hard time believing in the next 28 hours or so that an entire roster is going to be decimated to the point where they can’t play. I don’t even think that’s a consideration.

Hindsight, as you know, is always 20-20. We made a lot of choices going into this season believing Malik was going to be a significant part of our team and those aren’t just captain choices and experience, but Xs and Os and whatnot. That didn’t happen. We lost an all-conference defensive player in Malik, we lost the voice of our team and when we lost him we had a very different frontcourt. We had three freshmen basically trying to man the five position, so that was very tough to handle, something we couldn’t have predicted with all the injuries. Couldn’t have predicted two covid pauses, and with a young team like ours we needed to be at practice every single day.

And you saw the results when we came out of covid; we were too young and inexperienced to get through it the way we wanted to. Having said that, we followed every possible covid guideline. When we traveled to Syracuse we were a whole team, no positive tests, and we landed and the tests from the night before, which was different from the covid test you take to play somebody, there was one positive on our team. We’re traveling together and as much as you want to distance from one another and as much as you want to follow every (protocol), we’re going to practice, we’re in a bus together, we’re in elevators together.

It took out multiple players, it took out the head coach, which some might say that’s a good thing. But when I’m at home for 16 straight days and can’t go to practice, can’t be on the floor with one of the youngest teams in the country, that’s hard to make up in late January and February, the continuity that some of the other teams have is difficult. Hindsight is always 20-20, if you told me before the start of the season that we weren’t going to have Malik, we would have probably done some things differently. But it is what it is and we’ve got to get better in the course of this hopefully normal offseason.

(On Aidan Igiehon transferring and the program turning down an NIT bid)

Aidan is transferring. He put his name in the portal later this morning or early this afternoon. It’s been a tough road for him. I know he had massive expectations coming in. But he just, he wasn’t ready for college basketball at any level when he first came in, through no fault of his own. Then throughout his two years, he’s just been injured almost consistently. When I talked to him this morning, I felt bad for him. Because again, a little bit like our team this year, if you can’t be on the practice floor each and every day, how do you get better? It’s not just about talking about it. I don’t know if there have ever been two, three weeks in a row where Aiden was able to practice. It was just one tough thing after another. Some minor, some a little bit more major. It’s just sort of what he’s had to deal with first two years. I think him getting a fresh start at a new place, hopefully sort of turns the tide in terms of injury and being able to be a consistent player.

As far as the NIT, I mean, it’s a class tournament. It is. It certainly isn’t what we work towards, or what our goal is, but that decision was probably made a week or two ago. Between myself and Vince (Tyra, we were really on the same page. The health of our team this year just wasn’t very good, even down the stretch, I mean, we had days where we’re practicing with seven and eight players. When you go on two COVID pauses, you’re losing your captain, you have guys that are injured, it wasn’t the right decision for this team to play in the NIT. It’s been a long and challenging season for a lot of reasons. It didn’t have anything to do with the disappointment of last night, not playing in the NIT. It’s a great tournament, it’s a class tournament. Maybe we would have felt a little bit differently, had we been able to play in front of our fans and play in the Yum. But to go to Dallas, sit in hotel rooms, spaced apart with seven and eight healthy players, it just wasn’t for this group.

(On what the program needs to do moving forward)

We need to have a great offseason in front of us, one that we needed last summer to be quite honest. When you welcome three new freshmen, two grad transfers, and you’re bringing back sophomores that didn’t play a year ago, that virtually practiced and played mop-up minutes, we needed an offseason. Both in the weight room and on the court to develop our players, so that we could we could be a better team. That’s what this team needs. We need to add a few pieces, and we’re going to continue to do that as time rolls on. But the biggest thing is we need a really good offseason.

(On how being excluded compares to last year’s disappointment of not having a tournament)

It’s hard. It’s what you work for and it’s what you want for your players and to see those guys have to sit there and watch other teams scroll by, I think by the time the end of the bracket was showing I knew we weren’t going to be a part of it. Too many teams that were projected a little bit below us in some brackets were already being included and there just wasn’t much space left. So by the time the bracket had a few teams left, I didn’t hold out much hope. It’s a tough job the committee has. You’re not talking about major discrepancies between the last few teams that you can determine. It’s paper-thin, it’s what do you value? Do you value in a year like this, a team that’s played more games or do you value great wins or that bad loss. What do you value. People say the eye test, who they beat. But at the end of the day it’s still a paper-thin margin.

You can argue on both sides of it. Had we been included, I think there would be another team that says, why aren’t we included. So it’s tough. I think there were a lot of things that went into it. We played more road games in the ACC than home games. Did they take into account the fact that Carlik didn’t play and Jalen played 10 minutes when he couldn’t breathe any more at Wisconsin. And we made that choice to play coming off covid. So there’s a lot of things; I don’t think there’s one thing that pushed us out, could have got us in. Obviously, we could have won more games and that would have done the trick, but I don’t fault the committee one bit. We put ourselves in that position.

(On the perceived lack of effort and energy during the offseason, and how it might relate to pace of play)

Well, the lack of urgency that you guys like to point to, we never played or prepared like we were a shoo in for the tournament. Maybe that’s how it appeared on TV, but we never thought that. When you say lack of urgency, I say like - we’ve got a young team. 331st in the nation in inexperience. 331st! We took our most experienced team, a top 15 team a year ago, and we lost all five starters. And again, no offseason, we’re asking these guys to be urgent every second. It’s a very tough transition from high school to college. From never having played meaningful minutes, to now being counted on for 30 minutes. It was frustrating. It’s frustrating as heck. But that lesson hopefully got learned last night when we watch the Selection Show play out.

As for the pace of play, we want to play faster. We’re not gonna be Rick Pitino and pressing all over the place, but we want to play full court and we want to push the ball. We had two guards who played dang near 40 minutes a game, David and Carlik. Forty. Josh Nickleberry was hurt almost half the season, as was Charles Minlend. Those are our backup guards. So I’m gonna ask those guys for 40 minutes each, ‘Hey, I want you to pick up full court, turnover the ballhandler, we want you guys to push the pace. Any defensive rebound we get or made shot we want to push the pace like our hair’s on fire. We want you to guard the best guards in the country. We want you to stay out of foul trouble, and by the way be our two leading scorers. Their wheels are gonna fall off.

We recognized that we were a better team when we played faster. We recognized that, and we made efforts to try and play faster. But again we had conditioning issues and injury issues where two of our fastest guys played 40 minutes per game. You couple that with 12 scholarship players, three of which were out almost the entire year. We’re still limited on scholarships we’re allowed to have. Hopefully, that goes away after this season, but it is what it is. To answer your question, yes we felt the lack of urgency as coaches. Yes, we want to play faster. Saying it and being able to do it are two different things.

(On the future of Carlik Jones & Malik Williams, and where they could turn to for improved three-point shooting)

We need to improve the three point shooting. There’s no question. I would tell you that, one day after the Selection Show, I haven’t had an opportunity to really sit down with Malik and Carlik. That’s not something that’s going to be hashed out in a day. Love to have both of those guys back, as you know. They’re terrific players, they’re great representatives of the university. But, we’ve also, and they also, have to look out for their future. I want whatever is best for them. Whether that’s being in a Louisville uniform, or that’s moving forward professionally, we’re going to be very supportive of that. But I don’t really have an answer right now, as to what those guys are going to do.

(On how he adjusts to dealing with stuff nobody’s ever encountered prior)

It’s a tough pill to swallow for those guys. We would have certainly been a part of it a year ago. We aren’t a part of it this year. They, quite simply, came here to play for those type of expectations. I think failure is the greatest teacher, and the greatest motivator. I would like to think that how we felt last night, sitting in front of that video screen, will do wonders for our motivation and our understanding that every little thing that we do, as a player, as coaches matters. Everything. They’re going to have to take that. They’re going to have to take that that tough experience they had last night, and they’ve got to let it motivate them, and fuel them, and push them to be leaders of our program so that it doesn’t happen again. So we’re not in the same position, again. Guys are going to have to get a lot more mature, and a lot more grown up and soak in details a hell of a lot better than we did this year, so that it doesn’t happen again. But, I think we have some guys that made some strides this year, but I don’t think those strides were long enough to put us in a position where we’re in the tournament this year. That beared itself out. So we push towards next year, and hopefully with a great offseason and a few additions, and then failure being a really good teacher, we’ll be in a much different position a year from now.

(On approaching this week as a potential replacement team)

We’ll be ready. I think that the prerequisite is that you have all those negative tests in a row, so we’ll be ready. I don’t see that happening. By tomorrow night, there has to be a team that doesn’t have five players able to play. So I don’t see that happening. No one’s wishing for anybody to get COVID. We’re not on hands and knees here praying for an outbreak. That’s just not us. So I hope every team that got selected is able to play in the tournament and have a great experience. As I talked about, the tournament committee has a tough job. We’re not a part of it, and I don’t see that changing.

(On if there could be any more roster or coaching staff shakeup)

I think there’s certainly going to be changes. I think it’s too close to the tough news that we got last night, still trying to digest that. But some decisions are going to happen sooner than others. We talked about Aiden. College basketball is always about change, and I think this offseason will reflect that.

(On if the infractions case has been impacting the program and recruiting)

I think we have good players, and we’re getting good players. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a factor, a huge factor.

(On if he expects any other players to enter the transfer portal)

I think that in 2021, with the opportunity to play right away looming, I would not be surprised if there weren’t some decisions made on our team.

(On if he expects Charles Minlend to come back)

I think this is a really tough experience for Charles. He came here having scored almost 1500 points in college, and the injury really, really hurt him, and really set him back more than just the six weeks that was forecasted. I don’t see Charles making the decision to come back. I think it’s been a tough experience, I think he’s done a terrific job of endearing himself to teammates. He was never a guy that was a malcontent. He was always for the team. I love that about him. But I think it was a tough playing experience, which I can relate to. I went through that my last year in college. But I don’t anticipate him being back next year.

(On how he will handle the the NBA process with David Johnson)

Well, the thing with David is, I have a longer relationship with him. Obviously, I didn’t recruit Jordan Nwora when he first came in here, but I built up a lot of trust with he and his family, and he made the decision to enter his name, and then ultimately pulled it out and had a really good junior year and got his degree. Got a guaranteed contract with the Bucks. I say this about every player that has that opportunity, I want what’s best for David Johnson. I don’t know what that is yet. I don’t think he knows what that is yet, because that process really gets crystallized when you put your name in, and you get feedback from the entity that ultimately selects you. You can hear message board fodder, or draft board fodder, or people in the know, but the NBA gives you all the real feedback that you need to know. We see it played out all the time. Some kids make decisions, and you’re like, ‘why would he go?’, and then the next thing you know, he’s a top 15 pick. Then you see the opposite is true, where you say, ‘why would that guy go?’ and he doesn’t get drafted. David’s going to learn all about that with his family and the agent that sort of helps him through that process legally over the next couple months. I’ll have a sit down, and I’ll be as involved with any of my players as they want, or as uninvolved. I just want to be a supporter, and I’ll give him my two cents. He made throw that two cents on the ground, or he may listen to it. Everybody’s got to do what they feel like is in their best interest for their career, and I’ll always be incredibly supportive of them.

(On of Carlik Jones will go through the same process as David Johnson)

I think he should. I know him if he was my son, I’d try to get as much feedback as I could, and not make that decision on March 15, but when I have to make that decision. The good thing for our program, at least with with Carlik, is that he comes back, he’s in essence to free scholarship. Maybe Vince doesn’t feel like that with the budget, but he doesn’t, he doesn’t count against our scholarship count of 13 for next year. But again, I think it’s always wise if you’re being mentioned, if there’s a legitimate chance for you to play at that next level, to get as much possible feedback, and to give it the best shot you can. Then make the decision based on the feedback you get. That’s what my take would be for both of those guys.

(On if they are practicing in preparation for potentially being a replacement team)

We are not. Our guys are getting in the gym on their own. But it’s tough to ask those guys to come in on the on the disappointment of last night, and say, ‘hey, let’s go out there and practice our butt off’. So no, we are not.

(On self-criticism)

I think having as much humility as you can to try to figure out ‘what do I need to do better? Where do I need to grow as a coach? How can I put the best coaching staff forward that works together to help our team improve?’ I ask those those questions in the offseason every year, and they probably have to be a lot more critical questions this year. I read an article that was really interesting about (Purdue HC) Matt Painter this morning on The Athletic. He talked about he had that time where he sort of went in a cave and reflected on why the program wasn’t maybe what he had envisioned. Last night was really, really tough for a lot of people. But no tougher than the guy that you’re looking at, whether people believe that or not. I’ve been to 20 NCAA Tournaments out of the 24 times I could have. I’m not used to being in a position where we don’t make it. The one time that we did not make it at Xavier, we kicked off our best player, and then the other one got thrown out of school. Those were two first team all-conference type players. We took a step backwards to take a step forward. This was the, obviously in my mind, the first year that our record just wasn’t good enough to be in the NCAA tournament for again, a lot of reasons. I’m gonna have, and still have, and do throughout the year - this isn’t like an end of the season vision that I have all of a sudden. You’re constantly trying to figure out ways to improve your team. But now I can do that without the crux of preparing for the next opponent, without worrying about what we’re going to do at practice today. It’s going to be good for for our program.

(On the transfer market)

24 hours ago, I was preparing Monday’s practice. I wasn’t preparing for end of the season meetings with our players. It’s way too early. I think it’s been, with Aiden, probably building. He hasn’t been able to practice for the last month and a half, or play in games. That’s why I think that decision was made so quick, at least quick in your guys’s minds. But again, I was preparing for today’s practice, not end of the season meetings. Those will happen over the next, seven to 10 days, and we’ll sort of see what change comes about.

(On if there’s an urgency to get ahead of the transfer market)

There’s always an urgency. I think that we want to be quick, but we don’t want to be in a hurry. We don’t want to make wrong decisions either. It’s a little bit of both. We’ve got to make sure that we’re getting who we need to help us have the best team for next year. There’s a balancing act there, I’d be lying if there wasn’t. There’s kids that are going into the portal each and every day, some of you have firmer relationships with because you recruited him at one point, some of them you’ve never heard of. We have to find the guys that can really help this team do the things that we want to do.