Louisville basketball: Top coaching candidates to replace Chris Mack

Bruce Pearl, Auburn, college basketball

Here are the six top candidates Louisville basketball may target to replace Chris Mack as head coach.

Louisville basketball is set to officially part ways with head coach Chris Mack on Wednesday, according to Seth Davis of The Athletic, after just three-and-a-half seasons with the program.

Thought to be a slam dunk hire when the Cardinals lured him away from Xavier, Mack lacks anything substantial on his resume at Louisville. He only finished in the top five in the ACC once and he was on pace to miss the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season. The Cardinals didn’t win a game in their lone tournament appearance under Mack.

Recruiting is suffering, and there are also some off-court factors at play. The extortion attempt of former assistant coach Dino Gaudio ultimately resulted in Mack receiving a six-game suspension. While not the end of the world given what the program went through under Rick Pitino, it’s still not a great situation.

On the court, Louisville is just 11-9 this season with four losses against teams outside the KenPom top 100 and three of them (Furman, DePaul, NC State) at home. The team looked like it had quit on Mack during this 1-5 slide, so the program decided to make a move now rather than delay the inevitable.

So, who will Louisville target to replace him?

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Let’s talk about Rick Pitino

OK, so, we have to have this conversation because Louisville is going to have this conversation and the Internet is already having this conversation. Pitino has proven he can still coach at an elite level at Iona and has been linked to most power conference openings over the last two seasons. We know how successful he can be at Louisville; he has that tattoo celebrating the program’s 2013 national title.

There’s just simply too much baggage to keep this from coming to fruition. Louisville was basically forced to fire him due to repeated NCAA violations — some of which the program is still awaiting punishment — and bringing him back would not be the best look. For his part, Pitino had some hard feelings towards Louisville as a result of his ousting.

Would both bury the hatchet for a reunion with this many complications? It’s highly unlikely.

5) Andy Enfield, USC head coach

Enfield is from the East Coast having grown up in Pennsylvania and attended college at Johns Hopkins. He has also done a really good job in his nine seasons at USC, particularly on the recruiting trail — which certainly appeals to the Cardinals. The Louisville job is also an upgrade over USC, but is it enough for him to leave what he has going in Los Angeles?

There has been talk about Enfield at least seeing what’s out there and gauging interest from schools like Louisville and Maryland, so it’s certainly a possibility. However, his lack of ties to the school keep him from being higher on the list.

4) Nate Oats, Alabama head coach

Oats has only been at Alabama for three years and turned down any interest from other jobs, namely Indiana, in order to stay with the Crimson Tide.

But Louisville doesn’t have the “extracurricular” issues that come with the Indiana job while also being in the same prestige category. Oats has nearly all the prerequisites, too, having had immediate success everywhere he has been. More importantly, he has proven he can recruit at an elite level and do so at the national level, so it’s not crazy to think he might be able to do even more with Louisville’s resources.

That said, Oats’ stock has cooled a bit given Alabama’s struggles over the last month or so. How committed is he to being at Alabama long term? We may find out if Louisville passes on some names higher up this list.

3) Kevin Willard, Seton Hall head coach

Willard appears to be one of the early frontrunners, having served as an assistant on Louisville’s staff under Pitino for six seasons. He’s familiar with the program, school, fan base and expectations.

Seton Hall has become one of the Big East’s most consistent programs during his 12-year tenure, including a streak of four straight NCAA Tournament appearances — it would’ve been five if the 2020 tournament had been played — that was snapped last season. Willard has proven he can attract talent and develop it, making him a promising candidate.

2) Kenny Payne, Knicks assistant coach

Payne played college ball at Louisville and was a member of the 1986 national championship team. He became one of the most well-respected assistant coaches in the country during his 10 seasons as an assistant at Kentucky before he joined the Knicks coaching staff in 2020.

Being an alum matters, as does having a decade of experience recruiting in the area and the caliber of players Louisville wants to attract. NBA coaching experience is certainly a plus, too, even if he has never been a head coach. Zero head job experience is why he’s not at the top of the list, but he will be one of the secondary options considered if the Cardinals can’t land this next guy.

1) Bruce Pearl, Auburn head coach

On the surface, it seems silly to think Pearl might leave an Auburn program that he just led to the No. 1 national ranking. The 61-year-old has a great thing going on The Plains and no one would blame him for staying.

That said, he has proven to be an elite college coach at multiple locations and no longer has a cloud of NCAA suspicion over his head. That’s going to make him this offseason’s most desirable candidate because, as good as Auburn has become under his leadership, basketball will always be second-fiddle to football.

This might be Pearl’s last chance at one of the sport’s top-tier jobs, like Louisville. The Cardinals have as many resources as anyone and appear willing to put everything behind Pearl. He is the guy they’ve targeted, and there is some mutual interest from Pearl for those reasons.

We’ll see if this comes to fruition — Auburn paying up might change some things — but Louisville should make a hard run after Pearl.