ACC Preview: Louisville’s Burning Question

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 6th, 2015

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Can a pair of graduate transfers bridge the gap from a remarkable four-year run of success into the future?

Given the events of recent weeks at Louisville, it would be reasonable to answer this burning question with a far more complicated one: What is the future of Louisville basketball?

With both the NCAA and the university conducting independent investigations into serious allegations made by escort Katina Powell in her book “Breaking Cardinal Rules,” a pall of uncertainty hangs over the Cardinals’ program this preseason. Will sanctions be levied? Will head coach Rick Pitino be relieved of his duties in the wake of his own sexual scandal five years ago? Is it reasonable to expect this year’s Louisville team to maintain a singular focus on the court with all of the other negativity swirling around them elsewhere? These are questions that will need to be answered before talent evaluation on the Cardinals’ roster even becomes relevant.

Holding steady amid off-court pressure, Rick Pitino has a very good squad to work with. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Holding steady amid alleged off-court issues that might eventually cost him his job, on the court Rick Pitino has a very good squad to work with. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The truth of the matter is that despite Pitino captaining what could be a sinking ship, no one is perhaps better equipped to navigate the rough waters ahead than he is. Remember that it was Pitino who helped return Kentucky back to prominence in the 1990s after recruiting violations under Eddie Sutton left the program on probation. The longtime head coach, beloved by his players, will have the toughest task he’s encountered since his rebuild at Kentucky — keeping this group zeroed in on what they can control. Because if not for the exigent circumstances surrounding the club, the narrative assigned to this Cards’ team would undoubtedly be defined by uncertainty.

With the early departures of Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell to the NBA and the graduation of Wayne Blackshear along with the dismissal of Chris Jones, Louisville said farewell to its top four scorers from a season ago. Those four accounted for 78 percent of the team’s scoring, 58 percent of its rebounding and 70 percent of its assists, while also — excluding the ousted Jones — serving as the leaders of a team that was left for dead when the saga surrounding Jones unfolded. Astoundingly, the team coalesced in the postseason, pushing into the Elite Eight and coming painstakingly close to a third Final Four trip in four seasons.

Quentin Snider will have the ball in his hands quite a bit this season. (USA TODAY Sports)

Quentin Snider will have the ball in his hands quite a bit this season. (USA TODAY Sports)

So while the leading returning scorer from a year ago is sophomore point guard Quentin Snider, who averaged 4.1 points per game as a freshman, Pitino welcomes two elite level scorers from the mid-major level who he will count on to carry the offensive load. Trey Lewis, who spent the last two seasons at Cleveland State, averaged nearly 16 points per game a season ago to lead the Vikings. At only 6’2”, Lewis doesn’t have the major conference size required to defend at the shooting guard position, but he certainly has great shooting range. The senior shot 42 percent from deep last season, connecting on a school-record 96 triples — 36 more than Cardinals’ team leader Blackshear a season ago. Lewis gave Cards’ fans an early taste of his scoring ability when he accounted for 24 of Cleveland State’s 33 points in a November loss against his future team. Landing Lewis alone surely helped bolster morale, but the Cardinals also landed another gradaute transfer who sparks some excitement. Damion Lee, a 6’6″ NBA level talent who was the nation’s fourth-leading scorer a year ago at Drexel, brings length, athleticism and offensive versatility to the team. Lee can score in a variety of ways, making 2.4 three-pointers a game a season ago while also demonstrating a keen ability to get to the free-throw line, where he shot nearly 89 percent.

The two senior transfers, already entrusted as captains by Pitino along with junior Mangok Mathiang, will likely flank Snider, who will presumably have the ball in his hands often as the trigger man of the offense. Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 2014, Snider started slowly as a freshman, receiving sparse playing time behind Rozier and Jones. However, when called upon out of necessity, Snider found his footing and saved his best for the NCAA Tournament, averaging 11.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game while turning the ball over only three times. Over the course of the season, Snider took care of the ball in a manner that belied his experience, turning it over only 29 times in nearly 600 minutes on the floor last year.

The returning frontcourt duo of Mathiang and sophomore Chinanu Onuaku combined to average fewer than six points per game a season ago, and both will need to develop into more than just offensive rebounders. To their credit, they both clean the glass extremely well, with Mathiang in particular finishing 28th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. On the other end, the two will again serve as the last line of defense for a club that was fifth in defensive efficiency last year. With 88 blocks between them — and Onuaku registering a 7.3 block percentage, 87th in the country — Pitino will again feel comfortable pressuring the ball with his perimeter players, knowing the defensive strength he has along the back line.

A player expected to make a quantum leap in his second year on campus is 6’9” forward Jaylen Johnson. (Getty)

A player expected to make a quantum leap in his second year on campus is 6’9” forward Jaylen Johnson. (Getty)

A player expected to make a quantum leap in his second year on campus is 6’9” forward Jaylen Johnson. Johnson, who played a mere 106 minutes and contributed only 29 points as a freshman, led the team with 14 in its recent exhibition game and has many observers around the team anticipating a breakout campaign. Academic issues and an early injury stunted the prospect’s growth a year ago, but with Pitino’s propensity for turning afterthoughts into stars (think Russ Smith going from two points per game to a consensus All-American) and Johnson’s natural athletic ability, it would surprise almost no one if Johnson becomes one of the Cardinals’ most important pieces.

Fortunately for the Cards, the team will supplement the graduate transfers and returnees with a highly regarded recruiting class. The crop is led by Mathiang’s high school teammate Deng Adel, a 6’7” forward out of Florida by way of Sudan and Australia. Adding some firepower to the backcourt will be highly touted Donovan Mitchell, a dynamic 6’3” guard who led Brewster Academy to its second straight National Prep Championship in 2015. The class is rounded out by 6’10” forward Raymond Spalding who is built in the long and lean mold of many Pitino freshman big men, but will assuredly grow into his frame as he matures.

The media has tabbed the Cardinals to finish seventh in the ACC this year, their second stint as a member of the league. Amid the controversy and scrutiny that has enveloped the program over the last month, and more pertinently, the extreme turnover of the roster, that placement would seem fair and reasonable. Yet this program has won an astonishing 123 games over the last four seasons, second in total number to only their intrastate rival 70 miles to the east. Counting out a program with that pedigree and ingrained culture of success wouldn’t be prudent, even in the face of a litany of question marks.

Matthew Auerbach (70 Posts)

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