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Meet Louisville, quickly re-made in Chris Mack’s image

The Cardinals look ahead of schedule after a fast start to league play.

NCAA Basketball: Kent State at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Mack spent nine seasons at Xavier, leading the Musketeers to the NCAAs eight times while never finishing below .500 in league play once. While there’s no doubting that Xavier is a good job, it was hardly the gig propping Mack up all those years—the dude is an outstanding coach.

Mack and Louisville are as congruent a fit as you’ll find in college basketball—Louisville is barely 90 minutes down the road from Cincinnati, where Xavier is located, and Mack doesn’t know anything but coaching at a basketball-first school. The Cardinals were fortunate to have such an obvious—and willing—choice a short drive away. The odds of Mack working out well in the long term for Louisville are good, and he’s not wasting any time.

Louisville looks no worse for wear after the the David Padgett bridge year and all of the turmoil that brought Rick Pitino’s tenure to an embarrassing end. Like the Cardinals hit fast forward and skipped right past a couple of years of rebuilding and bam here they are again, ready to compete with the ACC’s best.

The Cardinals are 4-1 in the league and all four of their wins have come by double figures, including that highly-confusing-at-the-time 21-point blowout victory in Chapel Hill. It wasn’t supposed to look this encouraging this fast.

Louisville had a lot of production to replace off a team that finished 22-14 overall last season, and the program brought in several transfer players in an effort to do so. That can go a lot of ways, especially with a first-year coach, but Mack’s been able to hit on the best-case scenario.

Mack has a strong track record at the offensive end of the floor and hasn’t wasted any time making Louisville better there—the Cardinals are up 44 spots in offensive efficiency from last season, from 57th to 13th.

His approach tends to generate a lot of trips to the free throw line, but more than that he’s been good at putting teams on the floor without a glaring deficiency. The Louisville offense ranks among the top 100 in all four factors, which is the diversity every coach wants. The Cardinals might not be elite in terms of shooting percentage, or offensive rebounding, or ball security, but their floor in each category is so high that they might easily win a game with an elite one-off performance in any of those areas.

At the defensive end, you can expect this Louisville team to look a whole lot different from the Rick Pitino teams. Mack is a pack-line defense disciple—like Tony Bennett—which is a rather stark departure from Pitino’s aggressive full-court pressure approach. Both schemes obviously can work quite well, though Mack’s acumen is lacking here. His team’s style may be comparable to Virginia’s, but there is no comparison in terms of effectiveness.

Louisville ranks a modest 46th in defensive efficiency this season, which is pretty typical of a Chris Mack defense. His Xavier teams finished in the top 50 in defensive efficiency three times in nine seasons, and only one of those three managed to crack the top 40.

The pack-line’s premise is all there in the name, in that the point is to congest the painted area and encourage opponents to lean on perimeter jumpers. The pack-line is good for defensive rebounding, not so good for forcing turnovers.

A worry for Louisville on Thursday and moving forward is its lack of disruptive qualities. The Cardinals won’t scare anybody with rim protectors the way they did under Pitino, and partly out of stylistic choice, they aren’t much good for steals, either. Despite what they want to do, the interior defense hasn’t been noteworthy in ACC games.

They’re off to a great start to league play, and while I don’t doubt they’ll continue to be strong on the defensive glass, I do wonder what happens when certain more luck-heavy categories—3FG% defense (29.7%) and opponent FT% (61.2%)—inevitably course-correct a bit.

The Pomeroy Predictor likes Louisville by six.