TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Under usual circumstances, No. 22 Florida State’s game against 16th-ranked Louisville on Saturday (4 p.m., ESPN2) might have an air of mystery to it.
The Cardinals are in their first season with a new coaching staff after 16 years with longtime coach Rick Pitino and a year with David Padgett, a former Pitino assistant.
But the Seminoles, it turns out, will be plenty familiar with new-look Louisville, after competing against new coach Chris Mack in each of the last two NCAA tournaments.
Mack, the coach at Xavier from 2009-18, upset the No. 3-seeded Seminoles in the second round of the 2017 tournament, while FSU returned the favor a year later with a 75-70 win over No. 1-seed Xavier in the same round.
With Mack now at the helm in Louisville, the Seminoles know exactly what to expect.
“I think they play a lot like his teams,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “And they’ve been very good, so that’s a compliment.”
Over the course of his nine-year tenure at Xavier, Mack, a Cincinnati native and a Xavier alum, guided his alma mater to new heights.
He posted a .689 winning percentage with the Musketeers, reached the NCAA tournament in eight of nine seasons and in 2018 secured the school’s first ever No. 1 tournament seed.
Just a few weeks after the Seminoles ended Xavier’s season last spring, Louisville tabbed Mack to rebuild a Cardinals program in need of a boost following the end of the Pitino era.
So far, so good. Louisville is 17-6, has won seven of its last eight and has beaten four ranked teams this season.
And three of the Cardinals’ six losses have come against teams ranked eighth or higher.
“A lot of the same players, a lot of the same concepts,” FSU junior Trent Forrest said. “I feel like they just have better athletes.”
Indeed, for all of the Musketeers’ accomplishments under Mack, they had just three players selected in the NBA draft, and none from last year’s No. 1-seeded team.
That won’t be the case with Louisville, which, despite a tumultuous few years, has continued to recruit at a high level.
Mack also added a veteran presence in the form of three graduate transfers, one of which – guard Christen Cunningham – is a regular in the starting lineup.
He’s one of three Cardinals averaging double-digit points per game. Sophomore forward Jordan Nwora leads the way with 17.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, while fourth-year junior Dwayne Sutton (10.9 PPG, 7.0 RPG), Cunningham (10.2 PPG, 4.6 APG) and 6-10 center Steven Enoch (9.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG) are all bunched up behind him.
“He’s been able to get those guys to play with toughness, the ability to execute as well,” Hamilton said. “I have to say that he’s doing a great job.”
Which hardly comes as a surprise to the Seminoles, who got a first-hand look at that toughness and execution against Xavier.
They believe that experience, along with an expected capacity crowd at the Donald L. Tucker Center – where FSU is 41-3 since the end of the 2015-16 season – could come in handy Saturday afternoon.
“I felt like we got their best shot,” Forrest said. “So I feel like those two games have helped us, and they’re going to help us a lot this weekend.”