Louisville never got the chance to prove how good it really was last season. The Cardinals announced a self-imposed postseason ban on Feb. 5 as a preemptive measure against an alleged sex scandal that shook the program months earlier. With that, an 18-4 Louisville team led by a pair of graduate transfers in Damion Lee and Trey Lewis was effectively finished.
The scandal overshadowed everything for Louisville last season, including Rick Pitino’s sixth straight top-five defense and impressive gains on the recruiting trail. Pitino is hoping this year is a fresh start in more ways than one. The Cardinals return just two starters from last season, but they have the talent, athleticism, and depth to contend in a loaded ACC.
Even with new faces, this should be a classic Louisville team defined by full-court pressure defense hellbent on forcing turnovers. Pitino needs impressive athletes on the perimeter for that system to work and he should have a pair in sophomore wings Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel. Though both had small roles last year, each can be found on basically every list of breakout players heading into the new season.
Mitchell, a 6’3 off guard, is among the most explosive leapers in college basketball, while Adel is a skilled 6’7 scorer who could end up as the primary option in halfcourt sets. Joining them on the perimeter is steady junior point guard Quentin Snider, the team’s best three-point shooter (40.4 percent on 99 attempts) and one of the lone holdovers from last year’s starting lineup.
Pitino also has the luxury of depth this year, which is a good thing considering how much this team is expected to press. McDonald’s All-American V.J. King is the headline freshman as a 6’6 slasher on the wing. Penn transfer Tony Hicks should be the Cardinals’ sixth man as a scoring guard off the bench. Louisville also has plenty of options in the middle with three capable centers, led by senior Mangok Mathiang.
The ACC will be as brutal as ever this season, but Pitino has to like the upside of this young roster. If everything comes together, Adel and Mitchell will be household names by March while Snider emerges as the type of veteran floor general every good team needs in the tournament. After last year, all Louisville is asking for is a chance.
PG Quentin Snider, junior
SG Donovan Mitchell, sophomore
SF Deng Adel, sophomore
PF Jaylen Johnson, junior
C Mangok Mathiang, senior
Key reserves: SF/SG V.J. King (freshman), G Tony Hicks (senior), PF Ray Spalding (sophomore), C Matz Stockman (junior), C Anas Mahmoud (junior), G David Levitch (senior), G Ryan McMahon (RS freshman)
How Louisville can succeed: Locking in defensively, just like they always do
Rick Pitino’s defense just might be the most consistent thing in college basketball at this point. Here’s a look at where Louisville has finished in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ranking from 2011 to last season: 5, 1, 1, 5, 5, 2. Given the length and athleticism on this roster, you can expect that trend to continue for another year.
Pitino has said he plans to press more than ever before this season. He also wants to play more man-to-man instead of the hybrid zone schemes he’s had so much success with in the past. Pitino knows he’s missing Chinanu Onuaku, last season’s anchor in the middle, so the perimeter defense will have to pick up the slack without a proven elite rim protector behind them.
Mitchell seems like an ideal candidate to thrive under Pitino’s tutelage. He’s an unparalleled athlete who will be ready to turn every turnover into a dunk. Adel should also be an asset at both ends of the court. He was praised for his two-way play at Adidas Nations this summer, where DraftExpress ranked him as the top performer at the camp. Hicks’ quickness and toughness also make him a perfect fit in this defense.
Last season, Louisville finished in the top 15 in effective field goal percentage against, turnover rate, and block rate. Pitino is working with an almost entirely new group of players this season, but the pieces are there for this to be an elite defense once again.
How the Cardinals can go home early: Lack of proven big men
Onuaku was quietly one of college basketball’s most effective centers on a per-minute basis last season. He was an advanced stats All-Star who challenged shots, cleaned up on the glass and rarely missed when he got on the ball on the inside. It’s difficult to replace that type of production even if Louisville does have plenty of options.
Mathiang is the best bet to start in the middle, but he’s recovering from a foot injury and won’t be ready for the start of the season. Mahmoud has intriguing offensive potential, but it’s fair to wonder if his thin frame (7’0, 210 pounds) will be able to hold up defensively. Power forward Jaylen Johnson finished with 21 points and 20 rebounds in Louisville’s season-opening scrimmage, but he’s also something of an unproven commodity as he enters his junior season.
The good news for Pitino is that this team is so deep that he can mix and match lineups during the regular season to see which combinations are his best come March. With so much turnover from last season, there might be some growing pains early. But when you combine Pitino’s track record with the overall talent level of this roster, it’s a safe bet that Louisville will figure it out eventually.