LOUISVILLE — When news broke that Louisville was among the teams involved in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball, Anas Mahmoud didn’t get down or start worrying about what would happen in the coming weeks.
The Louisville senior looked at his younger teammates and had a simple message: We’ll be fine. We’ve been through this sort of thing before.
“It’s bad when you get used to it,” Mahmoud told ESPN.
The timeline of the scandal and drama surrounding the Cardinals program is well-known by this point. In October of 2015, a woman named Katina Powell wrote a book alleging that former Louisville director of basketball operations Andre McGee hired escorts and strippers for recruits during campus visits. The Cardinals self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2016 NCAA tournament. This summer, head coach Rick Pitino was suspended for five games and the NCAA said Louisville’s 2013 national championship could be vacated.
And then came the FBI investigation in September that led to the firing of Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.
“It’s kind of saddening that you have so much experience with this kind of stuff,” Mahmoud said.
Three Louisville players with plenty of experience dealing with off-court distractions — Mahmoud, fellow senior Quentin Snider and junior Deng Adel — have helped the Cardinals reach a sense of normalcy during the transition from Pitino’s 16-year tenure at Louisville to interim head coach David Padgett.
“There’s always drama happening,” Adel said. “At the end of the day, you have to move on. It’s not a life-or-death situation. We still get to play basketball.”
“Basketball is our escape,” Snider added.
No one knew what to expect when Padgett took over the program in the days after Pitino was placed on unpaid administrative leave. Padgett had never led a team practice on his own before and didn’t have any assistant coaches the first time he assembled the team on Sept. 30, before Louisville’s home football game against Murray State. It went perhaps smoother than expected, given everything that was happening.
“It really surprised me,” Snider said.
Some of the credit can be given to the three veterans, who have taken on much more of a leadership role in the past six weeks. Once Padgett took over, he knew he needed to rely on his upperclassmen to help limit the upheaval within the program.
“Quentin has always been more of a quiet kid, a leader by example,” Padgett said earlier this week. “He’s been very vocal, more outgoing over the last month or two. I don’t know if that has as much to do with what’s going on, or that he’s a senior. Deng has been extremely vocal, on and off the court, a good example for the younger kids to follow. Same with Anas. It’s a respect factor, when you’ve been through as many games as they have. They’ve shown the young guys the culture of this program.”
It was needed during the season opener against George Mason on Sunday. Louisville was out of sync offensively in the first half, and its perimeter shots weren’t falling. Mason led at halftime by three and took a six-point lead on multiple occasions. Two freshmen, Jordan Nwora and Darius Perry, were key to the comeback, but Adel finished with 20 points and Snider had 10 points, six rebounds and three assists. Mahmoud led the team in rebounding, grabbing nine boards.
Perhaps most importantly, the Cardinals didn’t get discouraged after a difficult first half. After the game, Padgett seemed relieved he had veterans to turn to in tougher-than-expected situations.
“If we had 10 or 11 freshmen, this would be really tough,” Padgett told ESPN. “But having those guys, who’ve been through it, they know what it takes to win, they know what it takes to win games like this, close games. It’s such a valuable asset.”
Back at the start of the school year, after summer workouts, but before practices started, there was plenty of optimism around Louisville. The Cardinals were a consensus preseason top-10 team, bringing back key pieces from last season’s 25-win team and adding a top-10 recruiting class.
Once the program parted ways with Pitino, though, the dark cloud overshadowed the optimism. The Cardinals are ranked No. 18, but talk of being a Final Four contender has dissipated.
“It kinda hurts to see how low we’re ranked,” Adel said.
“We’ve still got the same players,” Snider added.
Outside of Brian Bowen being indefinitely suspended, the roster is unchanged from the summer. There’s still the experience, there’s still the talented freshmen, there’s still promising potential breakout players V.J. King and Ray Spalding.
“There’s nothing wrong with us,” Mahmoud said. “We lost our coach. I completely understand that people don’t know how good our team is going to be. It’s motivation for us to show people, this team is still a national championship contender.”
Louisville is going to take time to gel. There’s a new coach looking to figure out his own identity, and a team still searching for its offensive star power. But the Cardinals have talent and experience, and that’s enough to win a lot of games.
Distractions and drama are nothing new to Louisville — and the Cardinals’ veteran trio are well-prepared for the challenge.