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Donovan Mitchell has grown into the star guard every great Louisville team needs

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The sophomore guard’s breakout season has the Cards primed for another postseason run.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Boston College Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Pitino has a type. It starts with the mentality of a shooting guard in the body of a point guard. Elite speed and a signature ability to finish at the rim are the first requirement. He has to be a pest defensively, too, mastering the ball pressure that’s been central to Pitino’s success for four decades. His shooting might be a question, but the ability to rack up points never is.

As Pitino has ushered in a new golden era of Louisville basketball, his best teams have been led by these relentless guards. Russ Smith became a legend for willing the Cards to the program’s third national championship in 2013. Terry Rozier followed next, leading an Elite Eight run and developing into a first round NBA draft pick in the process.

This season, there’s no doubt it’s Donovan Mitchell’s turn.

Mitchell has been the engine for a Louisville team in and around the top 10 of the polls all year. He’s blossomed into a primary scoring option, a lockdown defender and an emergency point guard in a breakout sophomore season. Mitchell first gained notoriety for his vicious dunks, but he isn’t just a highlight machine anymore. He’s grown into a fully-formed, two-way star that has Louisville thinking big entering March.

Like Smith and Rozier before him, Mitchell’s sophomore ascent has happened because Pitino put the ball in his hands and gave him the freedom to make plays. Like his predecessors, Mitchell earned that trust with his defense as much as his offense. He’s averaging two steals per game right now, a benchmark Rozier hit in his sophomore season and something Smith accomplished three times.

If Louisville recruits to an archetype, it’s found another perfect fit.

In Mitchell, Pitino has the type of explosive lead guard he needs to run his system. It’s a formula that’s helped Louisville on deep NCAA tournament runs before. Now it’s on Mitchell to carry the tradition a step further and do it again.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Mitchell arrived at Louisville by way of Brewster Academy, the New Hampshire-based prep school where he played alongside high-major peers like UConn’s Jalen Adams, St. John’s Justin Simon, and Washington’s David Crisp. The RSCI had him as the No. 27 player in the class of 2015 and Pitino saw him as a cornerstone in one of his greatest recruiting hauls ever.

Pitino knew he needed reinforcements after losing all five of his starters from an Elite Eight team the season before. Still, he was careful not to throw too much responsibility at Mitchell as a freshman. The Cards were instead led by a pair of grad transfers in Damion Lee and Trey Lewis with Mitchell carving out a role as a super-athletic ball of energy off the bench.

The dunk that sticks out is a tip-slam against Florida State, one that required Mitchell to dart in from the three-point line and soar over a Seminoles defender for the put-back. It was a brief glimpse of what Mitchell could be: a guard who made up for whatever he lacked in size with raw power and one that wasn’t afraid to go through you to show it off.

Mitchell had to count moments like these as a small victories, because he knew his freshman season offered no light at the end of the tunnel. Louisville was at the center of a wild prostitution scandal and the program was quick to self-impose a postseason ban. It was unfair to seniors like Lee and Lewis, but for Mitchell it was easy to see as something of a reprieve.

When the Cards were postseason eligible again, it would be his team.

The offseason hype train started in Los Angeles, where Mitchell and fellow teammate Deng Adel drew rave reviews at Adidas Nation. After hitting only 25 percent of his threes as a freshman, Mitchell showed the promising strides he had made on his jumper. Suddenly he had the counterstrike he needed to balance out his drives to the rim.

The jump shot has been Mitchell’s most noticeable improvement as a sophomore. He’s already hit 76 threes this season at a 37.1 percent clip after only taking 72 all year as a freshman. He hit six threes in a January game against Pitt, then did again the next game against NC State. When Mitchell hit six threes again against Syracuse in late February, it didn’t feel all that surprising.

Mitchell’s other welcomed development was more circumstantial. When starting point guard Quentin Snider went down with a hip injury in the middle of ACC play and backup Tony Hicks broke his hand a week later, Pitino was forced let Mitchell handle the ball. It worked out better than anyone would have anticipated.

Louisville went 4-2 with Mitchell at point guard, with one loss coming at No. 10 Florida State and the other happening with two starters suspended against Virginia. Pitino saw enough to name Mitchell a captain at the end of that stretch, a fitting reward for his breakout as the team’s best player.

Louisville knew Mitchell could leverage his athleticism to attack the rim and play with an edge defensively. It didn’t know he’d develop into a shooter, a facilitator, and a leader. As Mitchell came into his own during ACC play, it’s become apparent Pitino has the star he needs for the March run Louisville has become accustomed to.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Louisville has quietly become one of the country’s most consistent programs in March. In their last four trips to the NCAA tournament, Pitino has gone to the Final Four, won a national title, reached the Sweet 16, and then gone to the Elite Eight.

The one constant in those runs has been a game-breaking guard who puts pressure on the opposition at both ends of the floor and drags his teammates with him. Louisville wasn’t sure if it had that type of player on its roster in the fall, but it has a clear answer now. Mitchell is all the way up to No. 23 in the latest mock draft by DraftExpress.

There’s only one barrier left to clear if Mitchell wants to be mentioned with Pitino’s best. He’s jumped over everything else. Why stop here?