DES MOINES, Iowa — Louisville wasn’t expected to be here this March.
But the Cardinals adopted a motto of sorts — "working hard and being tough" — and they have done just enough of both to get back to the NCAA Tournament after a turmoil-filled season in 2017-18. Picked to finish 11th in the 14-team ACC in the preseason under new coach Chris Mack, Louisville will face 10th-seeded Minnesota (21-13) Thursday in the East Regional.
"We were a resilient group," said guard Christen Cunningham, a graduate transfer from Samford averaging 9.8 points per game. "We had a really tough schedule. We knew that coming into the year, but we took the motto of being stronger together and unbreakable and we used being 11th as a chip on our shoulder for motivation."
Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino was fired before the 2017-18 season after the school acknowledged its involvement in a federal corruption investigation of college basketball, and the NCAA stripped the Cardinals of their 2013 NCAA championship in February 2018 as discipline for a sex scandal. The Cardinals also lost point guard Quentin Snider and three other starters from a 22-14 team that reached the NIT quarterfinals under coach David Padgett.
Louisville then poached Mack from Xavier, where he was 215-97 in nine seasons. Most believed the Cardinals might need some time to get back to where they once were, but it hasn’t worked out that way.
"It’s no secret that when I took over there wasn’t the greatest light around the program," Mack said. "I told our players in the very beginning when I met with them that they weren’t the cause for it, but they could certainly be the cure for it."
Louisville, behind Cunningham, an improved Dwayne Sutton and a breakout season from sophomore Jordan Nwora (17.2 points per game), didn’t waste time. The Cardinals stunned Michigan State in overtime early in the season. Close losses to Tennessee and Marquette before that had given the players the confidence they needed to beat the Spartans — and the slog ahead.
"I don’t feel like anybody in our locker room felt like we played perfect in either of those," Mack said of the losses to the Vols and Golden Eagles. "So when we left, we felt like we could have done the job, should have done the job. Now we have to figure out what we need to do to win those types of games."
The Cardinals (20-13) won six straight in ACC play in January before going 2-6 in February, a stretch that included a crushing home loss to Duke in which they blew a 23-point lead with 10 minutes to play. Louisville rallied with two wins over Notre Dame — sandwiched around a close loss at top-seeded Virginia — to secure their place in the NCAA Tournament.
These Cardinals don’t have a ton of tournament experience; no starter has played in an NCAA game. But they are a favorite against the Golden Gophers, who happen to be coached by Pitino's son Richard, a former Louisville assistant. If Louisville can survive the first round, there could be a rematch ahead with a Michigan State team the players know they can beat.
"I tell our team all the time that we don’t have to be perfect. Nobody that we play is going to be perfect," Mack said. "It’s not going to require a perfect effort to win or a perfect game plan. It’s just our effort and our energy and our resiliency. Those things have to be perfect."