College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 9 Louisville will play under its fourth different conference banner under Rick Pitino when the Cardinals, formerly of Conference USA, the Big East and American, join the ACC. Pitino has his team ready to contend in yet another league thanks in part to the return of forward Montrezl Harrell, who spurned the NBA draft for a shot at a national title.
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Rick Pitino says that his frontcourt will not take a backseat to any team’s this season. He feels the same way about his backcourt. Pitino is a Hall of Famer who has won conference titles in five different leagues, so even though the Cardinals are making their debut in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Louisville won’t have issues being outcoached.
Pitino talks like a coach who expects another top-10 season with a team he believes can play on the brightest national stages, even though the Cards have only one starter left from their 2013 NCAA championship team. Despite Pitino’s confidence in his first five, the coach understands that his bench is unproven. The reserves are talented, but their growth and improvement will determine if Louisville can handle elite teams.
No. 9 Louisville Cardinals Facts & Figures
Last season: 31-6, 15-3 American
Postseason: NCAA Sweet 16
Consecutive NCAAs: 8
Coach: Rick Pitino (335-116 at Louisville, 148-62 CUSA/Big East/AAC)
ACC Projection: Third
Postseason Projection: NCAA Sweet 16
For two hours last April, Pitino was convinced that Montrezl Harrell was bound for the NBA. He would have been a first-round selection. But two hours after telling Pitino he was leaving, Harrell did a U-turn, saying he was determined to play his way into recognition as one of the top-10 players in the country. Harrell has the force, determination and skills. He must improve his 46 percent free throw stroke and prove he can make the 12-foot jumper.
Wayne Blackshear is the sole remaining starter from the 2013 champs, and Blackshear played off the bench at times last season. Pitino has questioned Blackshear’s commitment to the game. He has also become a player who’s too willing to defer to teammates and settle for perimeter shots.
Mangok Mathiang is following the Gorgui Dieng growth pattern. He averaged 3.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in less than 15 minutes per game, but Pitino loves his ability to block shots and protect the rim. Mathiang needs to make the improvement that Dieng made, playing at the top of the key and passing the ball.
Pitino says that he expects Akoy Agau, a sophomore power forward, to be the team’s most improved player, but Agau will have to out-perform four talented freshmen.
Chinanu Onuaku, whose older brother, Arinze, played at Syracuse, is the most physically ready to play. Jaylen Johnson, who is 6-9, is considered the most skilled. A pair of 7-footers with foreign backgrounds, Matz Stockman (Norway) and Anas Osama Mahmoud (Egypt), fill out the frontcourt.
Russ Smith was one of the best players in college basketball the last two seasons, but even Smith says the Cardinals will not have major issues replacing him. Sophomore Terry Rozier was terrific off the bench last season, averaging 7.0 points and less than one turnover in 19 minutes per game. He’s dynamic off the dribble and protects the ball.
Pitino does not run a point guard/shooting guard offense, but he is demanding more leadership from Chris Jones, his senior. The coach has asked Jones to lose some weight because he believes that would give Jones the quickness to get into the lane against any defender.
Anton Gill, a sophomore, showed a solid shooting stroke in limited minutes, but his push for more playing time won’t be any easier even with the departures of Smith and sharp-shooting Luke Hancock. Quentin Snider was the best high school player in Kentucky last season. He is a combo guard known for his poised decision-making.
Pitino is also high on Shaquan Aaron, who follows Peyton Siva and Terrence Williams from Seattle to Louisville. Pitino is already comparing Aaron to former Cardinal Francisco Garcia.
Replacing Smith, Hancock and Stephan Van Treese (who started 21 games at center) would seem to be a daunting task, considering all the big shots that Smith and Hancock made the last two seasons.
But Pitino is convinced that this will be one of his better teams by the end of the season if Mathiang can make a normal progression and if he can develop at least one of his freshmen.
Pitino might be right about his team. Harrell has the tenacity and ability to play inside with anybody. Blackshear has plenty of big-game experience. Rozier and Jones are capable of averaging more than 20 points per game. A maiden trip through the ACC will only make the season more interesting.
Shaqquan Aaron is a dynamic scorer and playmaker from the wing. Quentin Snider understands the value of taking good shots but can still make highlight plays. Chinanu Onuaku brings a blue-collar approach to collecting rebounds and defending the paint. Jaylen Johnson needs to add 15 pounds but plays well above the rim. Expect either Matz Stockman or Anas Osama Mahmoud to redshirt. Both will need time.