Key Returners: Quentin Snider, Deng Adel, VJ King, Ray Spalding, Anas Mahmoud
Key Losses: Donovan Mitchell, Mangok Mathiang, Jaylen Johnson
Key Newcomers: Dwayne Sutton, Tugs Bowen, Malik Williams, Darius Perry, Jordan Nwora, Lance Thomas
Postseason Projection: 2-4 seed
Outlook: Intro I chose to go with: Despite the loss of the team’s driving force to the NBA (Donovan Mitchell), Louisville has plenty of talent all across the roster – enough, in fact, that they’re a legitimate contender to Duke in the ACC. Rick Pitino’s teams always play lockdown defense, and this year’s squad should have more scoring options as well. Can the Cardinals avoid the upset bug that bit them in the 2017 NCAA Tournament?
Alternate intro: Louisville is the best team in the country by a significant margin. The experience of being on the Cardinals’ campus is surreal; you feel like a celebrity – everyone is so excited to see you, it’s almost like they’re getting paid to make your visit pleasurable! I cannot wait to go back and hopefully write for the Athletic Department. In no way did “gifts” from the Louisville coaching staff affect this preview…
Alright, sorry for that third-grade humor teasing the Cardinals about their recent escort scandal. Relative to the crime, most of the college basketball world seems to agree they got off easily, but the main two things that matter for this year are: 1) Rick “the Don” Pitino is suspended for the first five ACC games, and most importantly, 2) Louisville IS eligible for postseason play. Taking a giant shit on Trey Lewis and Damion Lee two years ago paid off, as an additional ban was not part of the sanctions, and a loaded Cards roster will have the chance to make a deep run come March.
Of course, the roster could have been more loaded had Mitchell, the #13 pick in the NBA Draft, returned to school, but his absence will just open up opportunities for Deng Adel, VJ King, Brian “Tugs” Bowen, and others to carve out more prominent offensive roles. Quentin Snider will also see an even larger burden as the offense’s primary playmaker in his senior campaign, and he’ll look to maintain his excellent ball control numbers (23% assist rate, only a 13% turnover rate) while learning to finish better at the rim (a ghastly 44% there, per hoop-math). If he can do that, he’ll join the ranks of Pitino’s efficient senior scoring guards with Edgar Sosa, Peyton Siva, and Russ Smith. Adel and King give him some shooting and slashing to whom he can distribute on the wings, but it is Bowen’s late commitment that really sparks offensive intrigue for this squad. He’s a lanky 6’7 who is a prolific scorer with his jumper or with hard drives to the basket, using a deadly floater game and clever finishes to score against size.
Bowen and Snider will thrive in the pick-and-roll-heavy offense that Pitino favors, which I broke down late last season. The ceiling is somewhat limited by his insistence on playing two non-shooting bigs, hampering the spacing around the main PnR action, but he’s found a few clever ways to combat that (such has having the uninvolved post up in the lane, forcing his man to stay close). Despite lacking shooting, Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud, the likely starters, are an exciting tandem because they’re both bouncy, lanky athletes who can draw a crowd when rolling hard down the lane and attack the offensive glass. Second shots are another crucial aspect of Pitino offenses, and although the losses of Jaylen Johnson and Mangok Mathiang rob the team of some physicality, that should continue. Malik Williams is 5-star freshman big in the build of Spalding and Mahmoud, but the most intriguing new big man may be Jordan Nwora – he could open up the defense with his lights-out shooting from the four spot if Pitino gives him a chance.
Of course, to earn that chance, Nwora will need to clean the glass and play excellent defense, an area where he lags behind his longer counterparts. Mahmoud is one of the best per-minute shot-blockers in the entire country, and both Spalding and Williams will make life miserable on opponents at the rim. When Mahmoud and Spalding shared the floor last year, opponents scored a paltry 0.85 points per possession, a pitiful number - if they maintain that level of defensive dominance, winning will take care of itself. Owning the paint, coupled with hyperactive perimeter pressure to force turnovers, are the central tenets of Louisville’s consistently excellent defense.
Pitino is a master of changing schemes to confuse the offense and dictate the tempo. The Cardinals have pressed on about 25% of possessions over the past three years, per Synergy, employing both a hounding man-to-man scheme as well as some zone principles. He’ll play zone in the halfcourt at times, too – 38% of possessions over the past three years, again per Synergy. He recruits specific players into the pressure-heavy scheme for a reason, although the current roster lacks a proven ball pressure maniac. Freshman Darius Perry and UNC-Asheville transfer Dwayne Sutton are the most likely to earn that title, and that ability may allow one or both to carve out playing time behind Snider, King, Adel, and Bowen. Ultimately, though, all of Louisville’s perimeter players can pressure up without much fear due to the elite rim protection guarding the basket behind them.
Bottom Line: Louisville has everything it needs to play Pitino’s system to its highest potential – a quick, experienced point guard, quality depth on the wing and in the frontcourt, and an embarrassment of rim protection riches. The defense should once again suffocate opponents; Pitino just needs one or two of Adel, King, Bowen, and Snider to ascend to “star” status to unlock the team’s offensive upside. Based on how talented that group is, I think the safe bet is “yes” and that Louisville is a top-15 team for the entire season.