ACC Burning Questions: Louisville Cardinals

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 4th, 2016

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

Burning Question: Will members of Louisville’s talented sophomore class make the leap to stardom?

Outside of some of the recent Kentucky and Duke squads that featured freshman superstars, most preseason top-20 teams return at least one double-figure scorer. That is not the case with this year’s Louisville squad — ranked #13 in the preseason AP poll and #14 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll — with Quentin Snider at 9.4 PPG representing the highest returning scoring average. The expectation underlying the Cardinals’ lofty rankings is that head coach Rick Pitino will see a leap in production from a sophomore class that oozes NBA potential. The player Pitino expects to reach stardom soonest is shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, whose high-flying style of play produced some of the best dunks seen anywhere in college basketball a season ago. If the sophomore wants to become a complete player, he must improve a three-point stroke that connected on only 25 percent of his 72 three-point attempts last year.

Donovan Mitchell hopes to show he can be more than just a dunking machine as a sophomore.

Donovan Mitchell hopes to show he can be more than just a dunking machine as a sophomore.

Mitchell can look to former Louisville backcourt stars Russ Smith and Terry Rozier as examples of shooting guards who blossomed under Pitino. Despite an injury-plagued first campaign, wing Deng Adel is another sophomore who has the attention of NBA scouts. He showed flashes of his vast potential late in the year, starting the last five games. The third member of the class is lanky forward Raymond Spalding, who, according to Pitino, “probably has the most pro potential on the team.” Blessed with a 7’4″ wingspan, Spalding is one of the longest and most versatile defenders in college basketball. But it’s not just the youngsters in the program that have Louisville fans excited. Senior Mangok Mathiang broke a bone in his foot last December and never returned, but he should be fully healthy now. With Chinanu Onuaku gone to the NBA, it’s Mathiang’s turn to man the post by blocking shots, snagging boards, and finishing at the rim. Others available in the Cardinals’ deep frontcourt are juniors Jaylen Johnson, Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman. After an offseason of hard work, Pitino is calling Johnson “the most improved player on this team.” Mahmoud and Stockman give Louisville a pair of experienced seven-footers to back up Mathiang.

Snider returns to run the show. He is not a flashy lead guard in the mold of Peyton Siva, but he draws praise from Pitino for taking care of the ball and finding open teammates. With all the explosive potential surrounding him on the wings, Snider’s game should perfectly complement the Louisville attack. Last year, Pitino brought in two graduate transfers — Damion Lee and Trey Lewis — to provide scoring and experience on the perimeter. Pitino hopes to get similar results from combo guard Tony Hicks, who averaged 13.2 points as a junior at Penn. McDonald’s All-American V.J. King is the only true freshman on the squad, and he should see plenty of time on the wing backing up Mitchell and Deng.

This Louisville team has all the makings of another stout defensive squad. Over the last decade nobody has coached defense as well as Pitino, who has placed nine of his last 10 teams among KenPom‘s top five in defensive efficiency. The athletic Cardinals should excel in transition and will probably overwhelm many of their opponents with their pressure. But how will they respond when some of the better teams on the schedule force Louisville to make plays in the half-court? That’s when we will see if all these highly-touted sophomores are ready to become stars. If a couple of them make that leap, the net result could be Pitino’s eighth trip to the Final Four.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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