David Padgett has found a nice stride in his first weeks as the interim coach of the University of Louisville’s embattled basketball team. He’s earned good marks with the press for his straightforward talk and upbeat manner as he takes on the challenge of forging a season for a program rocked by back-to-back scandals, and coach Rick Pitino pretty much run out of town on a rail.
The 32-year-old Padgett, just a couple years into coaching after a stellar playing career at UofL, inherits a roster full of talent — but also a very unsure future full of possible (probable) severe NCAA sanctions, as well as the sneers and jeers of basketball fans beyond the city limits of Louisville.
But here is Padgett, standing tall (he’s 6-feet-11) as he strides into the KFC Yum! Center — with a smile beaming across his face as he is introduced and warmly greeted by fans on hand for the team’s first public scrimmage heading into the 2017-18 season.
A big smile. A warm ovation.
Then the new coach takes a seat next to revered former coach Denny Crum (1971-2001), who is seated at a press table at courtside. Everyone loves that.
Not only has the clean-cut Padgett thrown open the gym windows to air out the stench of recent transgressions, he very visibly is reuniting the basketball program of today with its storied past, when Crum led Louisville to 675 victories, two NCAA championships, and generally operated at the top of the college basketball world. With class.
Crum, who is always on hand for Louisville games in his lower arena seats, had obviously been invited to take a seat near the team for the action Friday night, and both the old coach and the new relished the moment as in-house cameras projected the pair on overhead video boards.
Padgett had told the press in recent weeks he would be reaching out to Crum — and here they were!
“We’ve spoken on the phone a few times, he’s been awesome — as you would expect,” Padgett said in a press conference after the game. “I went over there and asked him how his latest fishing trip was, and he was telling me all about that.”
Padgett got a knowing chuckle with that all note, as most folks are aware of Crum’s passion for fishing, especially in far-away locales where he lands — as he tells it — the finest sporting fish ever hooked.
Talking basketball with Denny
Crum stayed smiling as he greeted fans and friends throughout the scrimmage. And he gave this reporter, and others, a top rating for Padgett.
“David’s a good guy,” Crum said. “He will do just fine.”
What Crum wouldn’t say is he knows the school has been due for a fresh breath of air for some time.
And he no doubt appreciates the chance to do something about it — though at 80, that won’t mean slipping a whistle around his neck and taking an active coaching role.
He’s retired. Padgett has reached out for an experienced head coach in hiring Trent Johnson to assist him, and Johnson could be a good hire.
Crum also understands there needs to be one face of Louisville basketball — and seems genuinely pleased that Padgett has been tapped to steady things. And maybe win some games.
Padgett said he loves talking basketball with Crum.
“It’s fun to pick his brain,” said Padgett. “I’ll say, Who do you like? What do you think? It seemed like he was pretty impressed with our team, so it was fun to sit with him for a little bit.”
Padgett said he hopes to have Crum drop by practice in the next few weeks. “I want him to watch practice, watch our team, see what he thinks.”
Notable as well Friday night was the presence of a good number of former Louisville players. We spotted Tick Rogers, Beau Zach Smith, Marques Maybin and Wiley Brown near courtside, as well as Crum assistant Jerry Jones.
But this isn’t really about Crum and the heroes of yesteryear as much as how Padgett is widening the school’s circle of support to put a new shine on a tarnished name.
“My biggest thing right now is support for these players,” said Padgett. “I want the city to support them. I want the fans to support them. I just felt is was a good chance … well, there was some talk about, well, it’s Coach Crum’s players. Or it’s Coach Pitino’s players. To me, if you put the Cardinal on the front of your chest, we’re all the same.”
And, he added, “I think it’s important for the players of today to know who came before them. And 20 years from now, when they come back, the guys who are playing then need to know who came before them.”
Now, as for the players of 2017-18, Louisville is stocked at every position with a nice mix of established players and promising rookies. Of course, pre-season scrimmages are generally meaningless, with teammates playing teammates. The Polite Defense holds sway:
“After you,” says one player.
“No, I insist, after you,” says another.
But the players were able to show off their shots and flash their speed Friday night. Louisville is tall — and fast.
As one might expect, holdovers Deng Adel and Ray Spalding, now both juniors, dominated the scoring, Adel with 32 points and 13 rebounds, and Spalding 22 points and 16 rebounds.
Adel is a 6-7 forward who flies faster and higher every game. More sure of himself.
“The first couple of minutes,” said Padgett, “he wasn’t doing a lot, just letting the game come to him — and that’s what you’d expect of a junior. He’s not going to go out there and try to score 20 points in the first five minutes of the game.”
Padgett was more impressed with Adel’s 13 rebounds, noting that in a rotation with V.J. King, Jordan Nwora and possibly Dwayne Sutton, the Cardinals’ wings could augment the rebounding of Louisville’s big men inside.
Spalding, at 6-feet-10, has shown flashes of potential in two seasons and is now looking to click consistently. He played all over the court in the scrimmage.
“Every day, that’s what we see,” said Padgett. “Confidence, that’s a lot of it. Being a junior is a lot of it. Being stronger is a lot of it. I’m sure you guys (sports reporters) see the difference in his body. Twenty-two points, 16 rebounds, six steals — that’s a pretty good night for a power forward.”
We would add defense to the top of Spalding’s resume. He’s got keen instincts and a longgggg reach.
And a wide view.
“With all the things going on in this city right now, not just basketball, I’m looking forward to being a part of it all,” said Spalding, a native Louisvillian. “Around the city, they talk about the basketball team, the football team, it’s a really great sports city. That’s what I’m looking forward to, is us playing together for the city.”
Forward King might be another ready to take a step forward. King canned 12 of 19 shots en route to 30 points. Several times he was able to add a very explosive last step on the way to the basket.
‘Jordan knows Jordan can shoot’
Among the newcomers, we were most impressed with guard Darius Perry and forward Jordan Nwora.
Perry hit just two of 10 from the field but snapped off nine assists. A coach’s son from Powder Springs, Ga., Perry is a confident ball handler who plays with his head up, seeing the court.
And he has size — 6-3, we’d say. Should pair well with senior Quentin Snider, or a tall scoring guard like Deng.
Nwora is what basketball is all about: shooting and scoring. On Friday, the 6-8 freshman from Buffalo, who played high school ball in Vermont, dropped in 18 points, including four of six three-point attempts.
He had less luck when attempting moves against seasoned college players. And Padgett noted that.
“We know Jordan can shoot. Jordan knows Jordan can shoot. And most everybody we play will know Jordan can shoot,” said Padgett. “What we’re working on is … a couple times he was open, and instead of shooting it, he took a shot fake and a dribble — and got a contested shot. He’s got to learn to shoot it when you’re open. When you’re not, put it on the floor.
“It’s just a habit a lot of scorers have to break because in high school they were allowed to do whatever they wanted.”
Nwora seemed excited with his chances. In the locker room after the game, reporters with cameras and notebooks buzzed around the Louisville players.
“I was in here (the locker room) on a visit when there wasn’t a game, but I haven’t seen this before,” said Nwora, smiling amid the hubbub. “It’s definitely fun being around with the team, and in this locker room experience. My high school gym was tiny. We didn’t have anything like this.”
But Nwora does have basketball moxie.
“I’ve always had the confidence to shoot,” said Nwora. “A lot of that is my dad is a junior college coach. I’d play against his players and I was always smaller than them, so I just had to go after it.”
Next up for Louisville is its second, and final, Red-White Scrimmage, on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. in the Yum! Center. The Cardinals play exhibition games with Kentucky Wesleyan on Oct. 30, and Bellarmine on Nov. 7. Then they open the season at home with George Mason University on Nov. 12.