Louisville basketball putting together unique & challenging schedule

David Johnson #13 of the Louisville Cardinals listens to head coach Chris Mack (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
David Johnson #13 of the Louisville Cardinals listens to head coach Chris Mack (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Louisville basketball has nearly wrapped up their non-conference schedule.

The lead up to the 2020-21 Louisville basketball season has been like anything we’ve ever seen before thanks to the effects of the ongoing national pandemic. Much like every other college basketball program around the country, the Cards still don’t have a non-conference schedule in place after the start date to the NCAA season was pushed back last month.

Due to that date being pushed back, games that had originally been on the docket for the 2020 season were cancelled or postponed, including Louisville’s first matchup with Cincinnati since 2014 and their trip to play in the MGM Resorts Main Event, which would’ve featured matchups with Arkansas, San Francisco, and Colorado State.

Big Red Louie Contributor Brett Siegel has been on top of the ongoing attempts by Chris Mack and the Louisville basketball program to launch their own MTE (aka Louisville bubble), something that appears to be closer and closer to coming to fruition.

According to Shannon Russell of the Courier Journal, that event is set to include eight total teams including Louisville, with Prairie View A&M, UNC Greensboro, Duquesne, Winthrop, Southern Illinois, and Arkansas Little Rock all signing contracts to make it official.

The eighth team in the Louisville schedule was initially set to be Western Kentucky, according to Jeff Goodman of Stadium, but according to Russell that will no longer be the case unless something changes with the dates.

As Russell points out, just because seven other teams are set to come to the KFC Yum! Center (or whatever it is named at that point) doesn’t mean that they will all face Louisville or each other. We also know that they won’t take part in any sort of tournament or round-robin type event.

Assuming that Louisville doesn’t add any other non-conference games outside of the annual matchup with Kentucky, that is set to take place on December 26th, and ACC/Big Ten Challenge, that likely means that the Cards will play five games total in their MTE.

That means that the schedule would shake out to look something similar to this (seven non-conference games total)

  • Low-major opponents: Arkansas Little Rock or Prairie View A&M
  • Mid-major opponents: UNC Greensboro or Duquesne or Southern Illinois or Winthrop
  • High-profile opponents: Kentucky & Big Ten team (My money would be on Ohio State)

To some this may look like an incredibly boring schedule, at least compared to what we’re used to in regular seasons.

However, this is just about as good of a schedule as one could ask for from their basketball team in such tough times, especially when you consider all the challenges facing Louisville specifically on the floor in 2020-21.

With COVID-19 cases still rising in the U.S. teams are doing their best around the country to avoid traveling, at least outside of their region. That’s leading to mini-bubbles (MTE’s) popping up all over the place, hosted by a variety of programs, making putting together a schedule even more challenging.

Yet, despite have multiple games moved around that would’ve been huge tests for Mack’s young squad the Cards have been able to add games to the schedule that will still test them, just in different ways. We all know that the ACC schedule is king, with Louisville planning to play 20 more games in-conference games this season. Which means that the non-conference schedule must be set up in a way to help the Cards get ready to face the gauntlet with teams like Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, NC State, and others.

In some seasons, having a strong non-conference schedule against multiple top 25 teams makes sense. While some coaches obviously prefer to play that every year, when you have a young team and need time to grow, sometimes that’s not the best path to success.

As we talked about with Mack earlier this offseason on the BRL Podcast, he has his first true “young” team since taking over at Louisville, after losing six juniors and seniors last year. Team 107’s roster is made up primarily of sophomores (four + one redshirt freshman). with a few seniors (two graduates), and a couple  of freshman mixed in.

Despite returning seven players from least year’s team, only two, Malik Williams and Sam Williamson, played more than 15 minutes per game a year ago. That means there are going to be growing pains early, especially considering the lack of offseason work that’s taken place due to COVID.

While Arkansas Little Rock or Prairie View A&M won’t scare anyone, they are both good tests for Louisville early in the season, that should help them get their new and younger players confident in their roles. Confidence and understanding of Mack’s system will be key, again especially without much offseason work, and these are the types of games that allow that to happen.

Then come solid tests against teams in the mid-major realm like Southern Illinois (Missouri Valley), UNC Greensboro (Southern), Winthrop (Big South), and Duquesne (A-10) all of whom have the ability to beat just about anybody on any given night.

Games against UNCG, Winthrop, and Duquesne may be ones that in a normal year where Louisville is set to be a top 10 to 15 team would be easy wins or games that could be overlooked. However, this year these games will bring solid “tournament” like tests to a growing team.

UNCG (91 in the 2020 KenPom rankings) has been a fringe top-25 team over the last few seasons and still has rising star coach Wes Miller on the bench with a group of veteran players determined to make the NCAA Tournament.

Winthrop (140) was a tournament team a year ago behind the coaching of Pat Kelsey (a close friend to Coach Mack) and could very well be back again in 2020. Duquesne (95) is a program that most people, including me, can’t spell and also aren’t aware could be a potential tournament team this season.

Then mix in a battle with a top 10-15 Kentucky, which has the makings to be an epic battle following the spat between Coach Mack and John Calipari this offseason, and things really get cooking for Louisville.

Throw in a battle with a team from the Big Ten in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge like a Ohio State, Wisconsin, or Rutgers, assuming that still takes place, and now you have a great mix of games to prepare your team for play in the ACC.

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The schedule, to some, may look like a wash compared to what it was a few months ago, but when  you consider all the outside forces including schedules being pushed back, restricted travel, proper testing, a lack of available teams, etc. etc. etc. you have to give credit to Coach Mack, Vince Tyra, and the entire Louisville basketball program for putting together a challenging and unique schedule.