On Wednesday, for the first time ever, Chris Mack and Jeff Capel will meet on a basketball court as opposing head coaches.
Both men are in their first seasons as bosses of ACC teams. And both are trying to fix once proud programs that were left in turmoil.
Capel has been tasked with cleaning up Kevin Stallings’ mess and essentially rebuilding a team from scratch after much of the recruits from the Stallings and Jamie Dixon eras bolted. Capel’s roster carries just two scholarship seniors, one of which is out with an injury.
Mack left his alma mater, Xavier, to take over a program at Louisville that is recovering from a scandal that rocked college basketball. Louisville fired its longtime head coach Rick Pitino just before the start of the 2017 season after the school became involved in an FBI investigation related to allegations that an Adidas executive conspired to pay $100,000 to a recruit’s family for him to play at Louisville and to represent Adidas when he turned pro.
On top of all that, the NCAA ruled in 2018 that Louisville would have to vacate its 2013 national championship and 2012 Final Four appearance. This came after an NCAA investigation related to allegations that a former Louisville staff member arranged for sex acts for players and recruits from 2011 to 2015.
Considering Louisville’s recent troubles, Stallings’ Pitt teams going 4-32 in ACC play over two seasons and the Panthers seeing a mass exodus of recruits seems like small potatoes.
The two programs have been through varying degrees of troubled times and Capel and Mack are doing their best to turn things around. While both coaches share the distinction of being the newcomers on ACC sidelines this season, they also have in common a mutual respect for each other.
“Chris is an outstanding coach. When you look at his time at Xavier and what he was able to accomplish, I’m not surprised by the success they’ve had so far at Louisville,” Capel said. “Louisville is one of the traditional powers in college basketball. There’s a lot of history in that program and a lot of pride in that program and I know he’ll do a great job of restoring that.”
Said Mack: “I think Jeff has done an amazing job. He took over an extremely toxic situation, with guys transferring left and right, not a lot of belief in the program, and in a very, very short time he’s instilled confidence and established how he wants his kids to play and he’s doing it with a very, very young team.”
The Cardinals are 10-4 in Mack’s first season at the helm and they captured solid non-conference wins over Michigan State, Seton Hall and Lipscomb, which was an NCAA tournament team last year and is the No. 64 team in the country, according to KenPom. Louisville also opened ACC play with a win over Miami.
Last year, under interim head coach David Padgett, the Cardinals finished 22-14 and 9-9 in ACC play. They went on to the NIT, where they fell in the quarterfinals to Mississippi State.
While Louisville was going through its first campaign without Pitino since 2000, Mack was finishing off an impressive year at Xavier, which ended with a 29-6 record, a Big East title, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a Big East Coach of the Year award. His Musketeers had an early exit from postseason play though, falling to Florida State in the second round.
The cupboard at Louisville was far from bare for Mack. Four-star recruits Darius Perry and Jordan Nwora stayed, as did former five-star recruit VJ King. Mack inherited transfers Dwayne Sutton from UNC Asheville and Steven Enoch from UConn. He also landed graduate transfer Christen Cunningham from Samford, who is second on the team in scoring and is a captain.
Still, Capel credits Mack for being able to get the most out of the players he’s been given.
“He was left some pretty good players and he’s been a big part in helping transform some of those guys,” Capel said. “You look at Nwora and you look at, first and foremost, his body, and the transformation there and the production. Those guys have gotten better. Perry and Enoch have done well.”
Things have been a bit different for Capel at Pitt. Among the five leaders in minutes played per-game are three true freshmen, one redshirt junior and a senior JUCO transfer. Freshman Xavier Johnson leads the Panthers in scoring and assists, and freshman Au’Diese Toney leads the team in rebounding and is fourth in scoring.
“It’s hard when you don’t necessarily have built-in leadership. I’ve got grad transfers and although they haven’t been with me, they’ve been a part of college basketball,” Mack said. “Jeff doesn’t necessarily have that luxury, but with the freshmen that he has in the backcourt and the way that they’ve defended night-in, night-out, they’re in every game they play.”
While experience may not be there for Pitt, grit is. They’re 42nd in the country in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Capel’s Panthers are 10-4, beat a tough A-10 team in Saint Louis and nearly beat No. 14 Iowa on the road.
“I think they’ve probably exceeded, maybe not (Capel’s) expectations, but certainly how people felt about them coming into the year,” Mack said.
Capel and Mack are both in their 40’s — 43 and 49, respectively — and each has experienced some success in college basketball. Capel took VCU to the NCAA tournament and guided Oklahoma to the Elite Eight before going on to become a stellar recruiter at Duke. Mack took Xavier to the NCAA tournament eight times in nine seasons, making three Sweet 16 trips and appearing once in the Elite Eight.
But the ACC is different. Rebuilding Pitt and trying to restore prominence at Louisville are probably the toughest jobs either coach will have.
Still, both are confident that the other will succeed.
“(Louisville is) tough, they’re very well-coached, they execute. (Mack) has done a good job,” Capel said. “I know as he continues to build the program up in his image, getting the guys in that play the way he wants to play, they’ll continue to get better.”
“We all know that this league is a monster league,” added Mack. “You’re going to have hall of fame coaches and NBA talent going against you every single night, so the resiliency of our kids and their kids is going to be tested. I think (Capel has) laid the foundation about as well as anyone could have asked.”