- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Jordan Nwora, Steven Enoch, Malik Williams, Dwayne Sutton, Ryan McMahon, Darius Perry
Key Losses: Christen Cunningham, VJ King, Khwan Fore
Key Newcomers: LaMarr Kimble (Saint Joseph’s), Samuell Williamson, Aidan Igheon, David Johnson, Jaelyn Withers, Josh Nickelberry
Outlook: Last season, Chris Mack proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he belongs in the “greatest coaches in college basketball” conversation. Louisville had no business improving from 2017-18 after losing Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Quentin Snider, and Anas Mahmoud to graduation and the NBA Draft. Many outlets (including this one) picked the Cardinals to finish in the bottom five of the ACC standings, as the program recovered from the Rick Pitino scandal and Mack adjusted to his new home. Oh, how wrong we were. The Cardinals finished T-6th in a brutal ACC and ranked 23rd in KenPom’s final standings after starting at 63rd in the preseason. Mack was able to get the most out of a deep roster with no obvious star power and develop Jordan Nwora into an All-Conference level player. Though Louisville limped to the finish line at the end of last year, finishing 4-9 (3-7 in ACC) over its final 13 games, expectations are sky high in 2019-20. Mack returns six key pieces from last season and adds a highly coveted grad transfer and a top ten recruiting class.
Louisville solidified its spot in the preseason top ten (some places top five) when Jordan Nwora announced he’d be pulling his name out of the NBA Draft conversation and returning to college. Nwora seized his opportunity last season, as many hoped he would, and emerged as a budding college basketball star. After playing just 12 minutes per game as a freshman, Nwora earned a spot on the All-ACC 3rd Team and captured the conference’s Most Improved Player award in 2018-19, pouring in 17.0 PPG and leading the Cardinals in minutes played (31.9 MPG). The 6’7” junior is a Swiss army knife on offense, able to shoot the three, score in the post, and push the ball in transition. His shooting gets more attention than his athleticism, but rest assured Nwora has plenty of pep in his step:
On the other side of the ball, Nwora is a key cog in Mack’s switchable, pack-line-esque defense and can turn a steal into a quick bucket going the other way:
Supporting Nwora in Mack’s frontcourt this season will be a combination of former UConn center Steven Enoch (who also said “no thank you” to the Draft) and 7-footer Malik Williams. The two 5-men split time at center in 2018-19 and likely will continue to do so this season. Enoch had a breakout of his own last season after two non-productive years at UConn. He showed off his range by knocking down 35.9% of his 39 three-point attempts (attempted just one 3PFG in two years at UConn) and proved to be an excellent rebounder and post scorer. Williams stretches the floor from the 5-spot, giving the Cardinals five legitimate long-ball threats, and is a solid shot blocker on defense. He’s much more impactful on the defensive side of the ball than Enoch, but not quite as effective as his counterpart in the post.
Point guard will be the most scrutinized position this season for the Cardinals. Christen Cunningham was surprisingly excellent running the point after transferring from Samford and was the focal point of Mack’s pick-n-roll attack. Without Cunningham, Louisville will turn to Saint Joe’s transfer Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble and junior Darius Perry for ball handling. Kimble is a very talented scoring guard that can play either on or off the ball, but he’s battled injuries each of the last three seasons. His shooting percentages were awful last season, but he’s the type of player who can create his own shot and score from all three levels of the floor. Perry has yet to shine in his first two seasons after coming to Louisville as a top 60 recruit in the class of 2017. The 6’2” guard improved his outside shooting last year and drastically improved his turnover woes during the second half of the season. One of these two should win the starting PG spot in the early going and compete throughout the year for minutes in a crowded backcourt.
Mack’s other two returners are redshirt seniors Dwayne Sutton and Ryan McMahon. Like Nwora and Enoch, Sutton shined with more opportunity last season, serving as a “do-everything” wing. Advanced stats aren’t kind to Sutton’s defensive ability, but his size allows him to matchup with multiple positions on this end. Offensively, Sutton contributes as a shooter, rebounder, and facilitator. McMahon serves as a spot-up shooting specialist – he’s a career 37.4% from outside the arc, but is a defensive liability on the other end. McMahon will have a role on this team with his experience and shooting ability, but don’t be surprised if his minutes tank in favor of some of the talented freshmen joining the fold.
Louisville’s incoming class has been dubbed the “Super Six” by some folks, a fitting nickname for a group that boasts a McDonald’s All-American, three other top 100 recruits, another 4-star, and a 3-star. Of the six newbies, 5-star swingman Samuell Williamson figures to have the biggest impact in year one. The 6’7” wing has drawn Jayson Tatum comparisons thanks to his length and smooth shooting stroke, and should compete right away for the starting 2-guard spot. Fellow top 100 recruits David Johnson and Josh Nickelberry could also see significant run in their first season in red and white. Johnson has a fluid style to his game and was expected by many to challenge Kimble for the starting point guard role, but an offseason shoulder injury will likely keep him out until December. Nickelberry is a high-level shooter who could turn into Louisville’s go-to scorer in a year or two.
Newcomers to the frontcourt include Aidan “Irish Hulk” Igheon, Jaylen Withers, and Quinn Slazinski. Igheon is the one to watch in this trio, a physical and chiseled power forward that dunks with authority and projects as a rim runner and defensive force. Withers is a super long athlete with the ability to shoot from the outside. Slazinski will likely take a redshirt in his first season in Louisville.
Bottom Line: Louisville has all the pieces of a National Championship contender. The Cardinals have a fantastic coach, a bona fide star in Nwora, and one of the deepest benches in college basketball. Offense will run through Nwora, but Mack needs Kimble, Johnson, or Perry to seize the PG reins for this team to be truly elite. Defensively, the Cardinals should be as solid as ever with three or four guys on the court at all times that can switch onto other positions. The ACC is crowded at the top with UNC, Duke, and Virginia all looking tough as usual, but the Cardinals have as good a shot as any to capture the conference crown.