LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Incredibly difficult. A sickening feeling. Incredibly disappointing. The toughest day we've had here.
Those were some of the words and phrases Louisville basketball coach Chris Mack used to describe the scene in the practice gym of the Planet Fitness Kuerber Center as he, his assistants and the players watched the NCAA Tournament Selection Show unfold.
As most probably know by now, it ended with UofL (13-7) being left out of the 68-team field, named instead as No. 1 of four replacement teams that could be summoned if one of the participants can't play due to COVID issues, a circumstance that is possible but not probable.
Mack and the Cardinals were aware before the nerve-wrecking wait to hopefully hear their name called that they weren't a sure bet to land one of the 37 at-large bids. But they were nevertheless semi-confident they would be a No. 10 or 11 seed. As the pairings reached the final brackets in the East Region, though, reality reared its ugly head.
"As certain teams that had been mentioned as bubble teams and maybe below us or slightly above us, as they were going off the board it gave you a sickening feeling," Mack said during a Zoom press conference Monday afternoon. "It's hard. It's what you work for and it's what you want for your players, and to see those guys have to sit there and watch other teams scroll by. . .
"I think by the time the end of the bracket was showing I knew we weren't going to be a part of it. Too many teams that were projected a little bit below us in some brackets were already being included and there just wasn't much space left. So by the time the bracket had a few teams left, I didn't hold out much hope. As much as the players were aware, the coaches were even more aware, having been through it and having an eye on all those things that affect you.
"It was not the news we wanted to hear. It was a tough moment. It was a tough show to watch and not be a part of. It's everything we worked for in the offseason, it's everything you prepare for to be a part of March Madness. We came here as a coaching staff to be part of the big tournament, but it didn't happen."
Mack cited a number of reasons that his team wasn't as successful as expected this season, including its youth and inexperience, injuries and two long COVID pauses.
Senior center Malik Williams, the team's lone returning veteran from last year's 24-7 team that was considered a Final Four candidate before the tournament was canceled, was lost for all but a few games due to a broken foot in early November. He was the team's best defensive player and also its most vocal leader. Josh Nickelberry, Sam Williamson, Charles Minlend and Aidan Igiehon were hampered by injuries at various times.
UofL lost a total of 35 days and eight games due to positive COVID tests that also put Mack out of commission for 16 days, quarantined at home and unable to attend the few practices the team was able to have.
All of those obstacles complicated matters for a team whose roster consisted of eight freshmen, six sophomores and two grad transfers, making the Cards the 331st youngest of 347 Division I teams in the country.
"All of those things equate to us sitting here and not being a part of March Madness," Mack said. "It's been a long and challenging season for a lot of reasons. Last night was really, really tough for a lot of people, but no tougher than for the guy you're looking at. I've been to 20 NCAA Tournaments out of the 24 times I could have gone as a coach or player. I'm not used to being in the position where we don't make it. Still trying to digest it."
UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, chair of the Tournament Selection Committee, said that UofL simply didn't have enough quality wins to be included in the field over other teams, and Mack said he had no quarrel with the group's decision.
"There are a lot of things that go into play," Mack said. "It's not just as simple as pressing a button and saying we want to be a tournament team again. You have to earn it, you have to work for it. The tournament committee has a tough job. You're not talking about major discrepencies between the last few teams that you can determine.
"You can argue on both sides of it. Had we been included, I think there would be another team that says, why aren't we included? I don't think there's one thing that pushed us out, or could have gotten us in. Obviously, we could have won more games and that would have done the trick. But I don't fault the committee one bit. We put ourselves in that position. Our record wasn't good enough. We didn't win enough games."
BEING A REPLACEMENT IS UNLIKELY
Mack said he has virtually no hope that UofL will get the call as a replacement team before the 6 p.m. Tuesday deadline when the bracket will be frozen.
If a team has to pull out of the tourney from a league that has just one team in the field, the conference may choose its substitute and the new team will assume the position in the bracket of the team it replaced.
If a stricken team is in a conference that earned multiple NCAA bids, one of the four replacement teams would move into the same bracket spot. Louisville would be the first. However, the NCAA is requiring that a team needs only five eligible, healthy players to start a game and not even a coach. Once the deadline passes, no new teams will be added and the game will be classified as a no-contest, moving the opponent to the next round.
"As far as being a replacement team, I think that's nice language the NCAA put out," Mack said. "It's a great safeguard for them and the tournament, but the reality of it is I don't see any team missing the NCAA Tournament, at least before it begins. Now once it begins, that could be a different story.
"But let's face it, if you can still have five healthy players, not even have to have a coach on the sideline, most rosters with walk-ons and scholarship players are 16-17 players. So I just have a hard time believing that in the next 28 hours or so that an entire roster is going to be decimated to the point where they can't play. I don't even think that's a consideration."
NOT NIT TRIP FOR CARDS EITHER
Replacement teams that do not ultimately qualify for the Big Dance can play in the National Invitation Tournament in Dallas as the No. 1 seed, but Mack said he and UofL athletic director Vince Tyra decided two weeks ago not to exercise that option.
"As far as the NIT, it's a class tournament, but it certainly isn't what we work toward or what our goal is," Mack said. "The health of our team this year just wasn't very good, even down the stretch. I mean, we had days when we were practicing with seven or eight players and when you come off two COVID pauses, you're losing your captain (Williams), you have guys that are injured, it wasn't the right decision with this team to play in the NIT.
"Not playing in the NIT didn't have anything to do with the disappointment of last night. It's a great tournament and maybe we would have felt a little bit differently had we been able to play in front of our fans in the Yum! But to go to Dallas, sit in hotel rooms spaced apart, seven or eight healthy players, it just wasn't for this group."
'IRISH HULK' TO TRANSFER
Mack confirmed Monday morning media reports that sophomore Aidan Igiehon, a Dublin native nicknamed the "Irish Hulk," is leaving and has entered the transfer portal. He also said he doesn't anticipate grad transfer Charles Minlend returning for an extra season of eligibility. Both players were limited by injuries and illness.
Igiehon, a 6-foot-10 power forward, played sparingly in two years at UofL, averaging 1.4 points and 1.4 rebounds in 18 games. He averaged 2.6 points, 1.6 rebounds and 8.1 minutes in five games this season. His last appearance was at Wisconsin on Dec. 19 before a groin injury and non-COVID illness sidelined him for the rest of the year.
"It's been a tough road for Aidan," Mack said. "I know he had massive expectations coming in but he wasn't ready for college basketball at any level when he first came in, through no fault of his own. Then, throughout his two years, he's just been injured almost consistently.
"I feel bad for him, because a little bit like our team this year, if you can't be on the practice floor each and every day, how do you get better? I don't know if there have ever been two, three weeks in a row where Aidan was able to practice. It was just one tough thing after another. I think him getting a fresh start at a new place hopefully sort of turns the tide in terms of injury and being able to be a consistent player."
Minlend, a 6-4 guard from the University of San Francisco, missed the first nine games with a knee injury and ultimately played in only seven games late in the season, with six points, six rebounds and two assists.
"I don't see Charles making the decision to come back," Mack said. "He's done a terrific job of endearing himself to teammates. He was never a guy that was a malcontent. He was always for the team and I love that about him. But it was a tough playing experience."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at email@example.com.