LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The first game of David Padgett’s coaching career was less than 24 hours away, but the interim Louisville head coach wasn’t tied up in scouting reports or pacing around his house with nerves.
Like most sports fans, he was watching Saturday’s loaded college football slate.
“I got wrapped up in a couple of those football games,” Padgett said. “That Alabama game was something else.”
Padgett and Louisville didn’t need last-minute heroics like DeVonta Smith’s touchdown for Alabama, but the Cardinals erased a second-half deficit to beat George Mason 72-61 on Sunday.
The margin of victory gives some extra credit to Louisville, which struggled offensively for most of the game and allowed George Mason to consistently get open shots at the other end. The Cardinals were 1-for-10 from 3-point range in the first half and needed a spark from freshmen Darius Perry (17 points, three assists) and Jordan Nwora (10 points, three second-half 3-pointers) to pull away from the Patriots in the final minutes.
“It’s almost like, not the weight of the world off our shoulders, but just the relief,” Padgett said after the game. “Some of us have a little bit of nerves, but now we can just get in the routine of games moving forward.”
It’s going to take some time for Louisville to find its identity this season and Sunday showed that. There’s plenty of experience in the starting lineup, with four upperclassmen and sophomore V.J. King rounding out the five. Despite that, the Cardinals’ bench is going to be almost entirely made up of newcomers. There’s Perry and Nwora, but freshman forward Malik Williams saw a handful of minutes and UNC-Asheville transfer Dwayne Sutton also played.
But the bigger factor is going to be Padgett and getting out of the shadow of Rick Pitino. Pitino’s ousting is still the biggest storyline surrounding the Louisville basketball program.
You can still see some Pitino staples when Louisville is on the court. The Cardinals’ active half-court defense, the two-point guard setup late in the game with Snider and Perry, the fact all the players were recruited under Pitino — and a couple of Pitino-esque foot stomps by Padgett.
“I guess old habits die hard,” Padgett said.
There are going to be questions asked of Padgett, maybe not in news conferences and certainly not after an 11-point win, but they are going to come. And it’s not hard to imagine the thought could cross Padgett’s brain at some point. Would Pitino have done anything differently? Would he have made an adjustment or a substitution? Questions like that. Padgett played under Pitino for three seasons, then coached under him the past three seasons. The hallmarks of Pitino’s program aren’t going away.
Padgett hasn’t developed his own identity yet, and that’s understandable. He’s not Pitino; he’s not going to scream and yell for 40 minutes. He’s far more relaxed, especially on the officials. He’s slowly adapting to his new role, though, and not worrying about what outsiders think — or see.
Because Padgett is 6-foot-11, he gets in the way of the viewing angles of some fans. In the exhibition games, he was conscious of that.
“I’ve got to coach my team,” Padgett joked. “The only person I really block most times is [sports information director Kenny Klein] and I don’t care if he sees anyway.”
Despite the drama of the past six weeks, despite the nerves leading up to the game, despite the halftime deficit, Padgett and the players pushed aside the noise and Pitino’s shadow to get a win.
“I think we needed this,” Adel said. “It’s been a long summer, a lot of unexpected things happened. At the end of the day, we’re playing the sport we love.”