Cardinals Will Rise from the Ashes

For the University of Louisville Basketball program and its fans, the 2015-16 season began with a lot of promise; and will come to a grinding halt on March 5. So much has already been said about the self-imposed ban, and what other sanctions may or may not be coming. Despite all of that, the Cardinals players have continued to show tremendous fight.

That was on full display this past Saturday, when the Cardinals overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half, to outlast the Duke Blue Devils 71-64. In that game, and throughout this season, some very bright spots have begun to shine.

Assuming that there aren’t significant additional penalties levied by the NCAA; and that Head Coach Rick Pitino survives the scandal, the future is very bright for this program. Focusing just on the basketball court; here is a look at what the Louisville Cardinals will look like next year.

Let’s begin, naturally, with the projected starting lineup. At point guard, back for his junior year will be Quentin Snider. The 6’2” Snider returns with a ton of experience. After being thrust into the starting lineup late in his freshman season, and running the show for the U of L squad that made a run to the Elite Eight, Q has progressed nicely.

Although he’s not ultra-quick, Snider is able to carve his way through defenses, get to the lane, and has become a decent finisher around the basket. While not a sharpshooter, Quentin’s shot is proficient enough to keep defenses honest, and he’s a more than capable ball-handler. As his decision making continues to improve, Q will be a solid leader.

Sophomore Donovan “Spida” Mitchell will take over as the full-time starter at the shooting guard spot. He has already become a fan favorite, and his freshman season has been filled with highlight reel dunks. His athleticism is off the charts, but he also has a strong mid-range game. He’s showed poise and moxie beyond his years. In order to take the next step to stardom, Mitchell will need to avoid gambling as often on defense. At 6’3”, Spida may need to add some point guard abilities as well, not only to allow the Cardinals some flexibility, but to succeed at the NBA level. He certainly has the goods to do so.

Moving on to the frontcourt, we’ll start at small forward. Deng Adel should be in line to start there. Adel’s freshman season hit a snag when he hurt his knee just two games in. He was a starter right off the bat, and then has struggled for much of the year to get consistent minutes after returning from injury. On Saturday against Duke however, he finally got his chance, and he made the most of it. Scoring 12 points, adding five rebounds, Deng displayed a lot of versatility.

At 6’7”, long and quick, Adel will be able to float between the shooting guard and small forward; and if Pitino wants to go small, perhaps even the power forward spot. Deng has three point range on his jump shot, and can get to the rim. He’ll need to spend the off-season getting acclimated to Coach Pitino’s match-up zone defense. Adel has been glaringly lost in that defensive scheme quite a bit since his return from injury. Assuming he erases his defensive issues, his activity, and rangy body will make him a problem for most teams to deal with.

Jaylen Johnson is next up at power forward. The 6’9” junior to be has shown glimpses, but still has a lot of work to do. Johnson has started for a good portion of his sophomore season, and should continue to progress into a solid college player. Similar to Adel, Jaylen has looked a bit lost in the match-up zone defense. Missed assignments have led to a number of wide open looks for opposing teams. That’s going to be what determines if he keeps the starting gig.

Johnson does have the ability to hit face-up jumpers out to 17-18 feet. With added muscle, he also should be a capable post threat. With three years in the program, hopefully that will lend a bit more confidence, and allow Jaylen to be more assertive.

Based on another assumption, the center position should be in excellent hands. Chinanu Onuaku improved by leaps and bounds from his freshman to sophomore year. He put a tremendous amount of work into his offensive footwork. As a freshman Nanu looked terrified on offense. Now, he can score in a variety of ways. He’s excellent with his back to the basket, and can score over either shoulder. His jump shot is also effective out to 15 feet.

Defensively, Onuaku can be an absolute terror blocking shots. He’s also a rebounding machine. Unfortunately, he’s still a foul magnet, so foul trouble follows him everywhere. If he learns to cut down on silly fouls, particularly moving screens on the offensive end, Nanu could turn into an All-American.

Over the last few years, Rick Pitino’s teams have been blessed with a tremendous amount of depth. 2016-17 should be no different from that standpoint. In particular, the frontcourt is going to be stacked. Rick will be able to look down the bench, and pick from guys standing 6’10”, 6’10”, 7’0”, and 7’0”. Each of those options will come with some quality experience.

Mangok Mathiang will be heading into his fifth season with the program. His junior year was derailed by a foot injury that effectively ended his season in mid-December. Whether he’ll be granted any additional eligibility due to missing most of the season, remains to be seen.

If not, Mangok will be a senior who practiced with the 2013 National Championship team; and has played in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Similar to Onuaku, Mathiang benefited immensely from international experience over the summer of 2015. During the brief time he played in 2015-16, he displayed some offensive ability he didn’t previously have. Mangok’s energy on the boards and defensively will continue to be an asset, and he’s grown into a team leader.

The first seven-footer off the bench will be Anas Mahmoud. This kid just oozes moxie, and basketball IQ. He’s one of those hidden gems that Pitino tends to find. Anas has a smooth offensive game, can run the floor, and has shown some decent shot blocking instinct. He’ll absolutely have to add muscle, as he can be knocked over by a stiff breeze at this point. If he does, Mahmoud is going to be a beast.

Local product Ray Spalding has been a pleasant surprise. It’s always nice having Louisville kids on the team, but even better when they’re legitimate contributors. I thought it would take Ray a couple of years to see the floor, but he has proven to be worthy of immediate minutes.

Spalding is another super athlete. He’s got the quickness to guard on the perimeter, and the spring to swat shots away near the basket. Ray’s offensive game is advanced far beyond what was expected coming in. He’s got nice touch on his shot out to the free throw line, and is crafty in the paint. Like Mahmoud, if he builds up his body so he can physically hold his own, he’ll be hard to handle.

The other seven-footer who will contribute is Matz Stockman. While he still has a long way to go in order to garner a significant amount of minutes, Matz has shown that he won’t be overwhelmed when he gets them. Although not a total liability, Stockman will need to do a lot of work study defensively in order to stay on the floor. He’s already displayed some offensive acumen, and unlike many inexperienced players, Matz is not afraid to attack the basket as soon as he gets the ball.

Unlike the frontcourt, the backcourt depth may be a bit of a question mark. It’s all going to start with incoming freshman V.J. King, who is the gem of the incoming class. King is a 6’6” McDonald’s All-American, who has a penchant for scoring. Attacking the basket is his strongest attribute right now, but is also considered a capable outside shooter. His size should allow him to share the shooting guard/small forward duties with Deng Adel. Whether next year’s Cardinals are a legitimate contender, will hinge upon V.J. living up to his lofty expectations.

The remainder of the backcourt minutes are going to be up for grabs. Cleveland product Frankie Hughes is on his way, and has risen up the recruiting ranks. He’ll be a combo guard to start, and will need to develop into an option at point guard in order to gain early minutes.

After the success of Damion Lee and Trey Lewis this year, Coach P went the route of the grad transfer again. Tony Hicks will provide a veteran presence, and was a solid scorer while at Penn. I doubt he’ll have the type of impact that Lee and Lewis did, but if he can spell Snider at the point guard, that will be enough.

David Levitch will be around for his senior season, and should fill the same role he always has. Rick loves putting him in the game when we all least expect it. He doesn’t typically hurt the team when he’s in, and has finally begun to knock down three’s consistently when the occasion presents itself. What Ryan McMahon brings to the table, remains a complete mystery.

Hopefully the NCAA will have made their final determinations by the time the 2016-17 season tips off. There may be a portion of the season that Rick Pitino is suspended for assuming he’s still at the helm. What he has proven time and time again, is that he will get the absolute maximum out of every person on his team. In the past 10 years, Louisville has jumped into the most difficult conferences in the Big East, and now the ACC; and has competed at a high level. With the talent on board, there’s no reason to believe that next year’s U of L squad will not only compete for ACC supremacy; but also for a National Championship.

Photo via Kevin Coles/Flickr