While frequently being praised for its depth, the Atlantic Coastal Conference has consistently gone through Virginia, North Carolina, and Duke. In fact, since 2004, only Maryland, who shared the title in 2010, and Miami, who won it in 2013, have held the crown of regular-season ACC champions, outside of the big three. Now, that’s no Kansas and the Big 12 streak, but still quite remarkable. However, 2020 may be the year that a new team gets involved as the Louisville Cardinals seek the coveted ACC title.
Enter Chris Mack and the Louisville Cardinals. Last year, Louisville surprised many people finishing sixth in the ACC and knocking off big opponents like Michigan State and North Carolina throughout the year. Chris Mack was quite successful at Xavier, but there were many people that thought he couldn’t clean up the mess in Louisville so quickly.
How Louisville Can Win the ACC Title
The Star of the Louisville Cardinals
Much of the team’s success can be attributed to the breakout sophomore campaign from Jordan Nwora. He finished the year averaging 17 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while dealing with the opponent’s best defenders and consistent double teams.
Nwora is a multi-dimensional scorer but showed some inconsistencies. There were games when he would be almost non-existent. Examples include an 8-point performance in a loss at Pittsburgh and an 11-point performance in a loss to UNC. Typically, these performances came out of a lack of aggression or settling for jump shots.
This is to be expected from a player that went from 12 minutes and four shots a game to 32 minutes and 13 shots a game from his freshman to sophomore seasons. You can expect Nwora to take the next step in his game under Mack’s tutelage, similar to Trevon Blueitt at Xavier.
Louisville’s Player Personnel
Louisville’s success goes far beyond just Nwora. Throughout the season, Louisville utilized its depth and aggressiveness on the defensive end to cause nightmares for teams. Louisville played nine players more than 13 minutes a game which is uncommon in the college game. Of those nine, six will be returning, which is also uncommon in the power conferences.
In addition to those six, they add two graduate transfers: Lamarr Kimble from St. Joe’s and Keith Oddo from Richmond, who will help to replace the two senior guards they lost. Luckily for Cardinal fans, Mack returns 76 percent of its scoring from last year on top of a great recruiting class.
Louisville will be returning two starters outside of Nwora: center Steven Enoch and forward Dwayne Sutton. Both were able to bring a much-needed scoring ability, but their major impact comes on the glass and the defensive end.
Besides the starters, Malik Williams, Ryan McMahon and Darius Perry add plenty of talent to this roster. Malik Williams is a highly recruited big but was a shell of himself last year. He will have major impacts on the defensive end and be a handful to control the glass. Look for him to take a huge step forward from last year and become a key contributor.
Ryan McMahon is a sharpshooter that will help space the floor for the Cardinals. He has improved every year he has been at Louisville and took over more of a playmaking role last year, so look for that to continue.
Finally, Darius Perry had an up and down season, but he has a ton of ability and athleticism. If he can find himself back in the good graces of the coaching staff, he can have a big impact on this team with his true microwave-like abilities.
Mack was able to work his magic on the recruiting trail. The Cardinals pulled in the 10th-ranked class in the nation, with six total recruits. The most notable recruit is five-star Samuell Williamson, a wing version of Jordan Nwora. He will bring a solid scoring ability and athleticism to take some of the pressure off Nwora. He steps into a perfect position where he can mature slowly and help as needed without the pressure of being the go-to guy.
They will also add five four-star recruits to fill out the roster. David Johnson and Josh Nickelberry are combo guards that bring toughness and some scoring ability. These two seem to be more of a work in progress, but will definitely add plenty of talent. Early on, the Cardinals will rely heavily on Kimble and Oddo to help with the backcourt production, but late in the season expect to see more of Johnson, at least.
Johnson also suffered a shoulder injury during summer workouts that will sideline him for the first few months of the season. Regardless, the Cards will be deeper in the backcourt than they were last year.
Next is Aidan Igiehon, a 6’9 big body that will add to an already deep frontcourt. The Cards will rely mostly on Enoch and Williams at the five, but Igiehon will be able to alleviate foul concerns and give Nwora an occasional break if needed.
Finally, they bring Jaelyn Withers and Quinn Slazinksi in to bring more depth to the frontcourt and wing positions. Look for one Slazinksi to be redshirted and Withers to play a few minutes off the bench each night behind Nwora and Williamson.
Ultimately, a major downfall for Louisville last year was the lack of playmaking and consistency out of the backcourt. Christen Cunningham was able to provide a scoring spark, no one was able to get other players involved. Those concerns may have been slightly addressed with the addition of Kimble, but it is still a significant question.
Nwora may take over a point forward role out of necessity. However, he is going to need to improve his abilities in the playmaking area for that to work.
Louisville will need to find some consistency in their night-to-night performances, which should come with the growth and maturation of Nwora. As was the case last year, this team will go as far as Nwora takes them. The major questions will be who becomes the second option offensively and who will be able to make plays for others, outside of Nwora.
How the Cardinals can Win the Crown
Louisville will undoubtedly be much improved from last year, and could very well contend for the ACC title. However, it would be unwise to count out Virginia, Duke, and UNC. While all three teams are experiencing massive changes in player personnel, they have the coaching staff and the program in place to absorb the challenges. The high ratings from experts certainly are warranted, but also slightly overexaggerated. Louisville drastically outperformed expectations last year and they may come back to Earth this year.
They have the firepower and the coaching to make noise. It would be surprising if they do not finish in the top-four of the ACC. Winning the conference, though, will require major steps forward from the returners and freshmen that are not afraid of the limelight.
However, Cardinals fans should be ecstatic with Chris Mack, as he returned them to the spotlight that Rick Pitino frequently had them in. Louisville will be in the mix with Virginia, Duke, and UNC for the foreseeable future.
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