Few coaches have shown an ability to adapt quite like Rick Pitino Nobody embraced the 3-point shot more quickly than Pitino. The man pressed the tempo when other coaches slowed it down. And he won.
Pitino’s latest adaptation? Proving he can win big with graduate transfers.
Concerned that four starters and two transfers were leaving, Pitino and his assistants spread the word that the Cardinals were willing to rebuild with graduate transfers, players who earned degrees at other schools but were eligible to play elsewhere for one season. Message received. Pitino landed two of the best 10 available — forward Damion Lee of Drexel and guard Trey Lewis of Cleveland State. The success of Louisville’s season will depend on the ability of Lee and Lewis to deliver in the ACC as consistently as they did at the mid-major level.
The season, though, will have a cloud over it after salacious accusations surfaced weeks before practice began. Will the NCAA step in? Will more details arise in the coming weeks? Either could impact a team full of unproven players in the ACC.
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
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Lee will inherit the minutes Wayne Blackshear played at small forward last season. Lee scored 30 or more five times at Drexel last season while averaging 21.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. He’s not a great shooter, but his attacking style put him at the free throw line more than seven times per game. Deng Adel, a four-star recruit from Australia, will earn minutes if he can clean up his ball handling. He’s a dynamic athlete but a bit raw.
Louisville’s other forward position will be more difficult to fill because Montrezl Harrell gave the Cardinals muscle and resolve as well as points and rebounds. Pitino loves the way that sophomore Jaylen Johnson improved late last season and believes he has the athleticism to develop into a force. But he’s raw and averaged less than five minutes per game last season.
The center position is muddled — sophomores Chinanu Onuaku, Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman as well as hometown freshman Raymond Spalding will all get looks, and it’s now or never for junior Mangok Mathiang. Look for Onuaku to win the job. After nearly leaving at the end of the season, he huddled with Pitino and dedicated himself to becoming a leader and worker. Onuaku showed he was more than merely talk. He started for the U.S. team that won the gold medal in the World University Games, contributing 12 blocked shots while averaging 4.6 points and 5.0 rebounds. Onuaku also improved his free throw stroke by adopting Rick Barry’s under-hand method.
No. 23 Louisville Facts & Figures
Last season: 27-9,12-6 ACC
Postseason: Elite Eight
Consecutive NCAAs: 9
ACC Projection: Fourth
Postseason projection: Second Round
Two double-figure scorers have also departed the backcourt — Terry Rozier, who was taken 16th overall by the Boston Celtics, and Chris Jones, who failed to finish the season with the Cards after Pitino dismissed him in February. Fourth guard Anton Gill also bolted (to Nebraska) after the season.
Quentin Snider benefited from Jones’ dismissal, moving into the starting lineup and scoring in double figures in five of Louisville’s final eight games. Snider is a poised and intelligent player who needs to improve his assertiveness on offense.
Lewis is a lock to fill the 2-guard spot. Pitino raved about his leadership early in the summer. The coach actually fell in love with his game when Lewis scored 24 of Cleveland State’s 33 points when the Cards defeated CSU last November. Lewis made 96-of-227 3-pointers last season. Nobody on Pitino’s 2015 team made more than 60 shots from distance.
Backcourt depth is not a strength. Freshman Donovan Mitchell will be the top reserve. He’s a powerful, mature player who loves to attack the rim, but he has not developed the ball-handling skills to play point guard. Ryan McMahon, another freshman, is an undersized shooter whom Pitino recruited on a recommendation from Dick Vitale.
Key Losses: G Terry Rozier, F Montrezl Harrell, G Chris Jones, G/F Wayne Blackshear
Top Players: G Quentin Snider, G Trey Lewis, F Damion Lee, F Jaylen Johnson, F/C Chinanu Onuaku
This is the critical area for Rick Pitino’s team. The Cardinals need Damion Lee to score the way he did at Drexel (21.4 ppg) and Trey Lewis to shoot from distance as he did at Cleveland State (42.3 percent). Donovan Mitchell enters as the most talented freshman, an acrobatic scorer who will have to improve his ball skills. Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding will need more time to fit in. Ryan McMahon is a project.
This is Pitino’s most difficult team to judge because it’s risky predicting how easily guys like Lee and Lewis will transition to a new coaching system and a more athletic league in only one season. They must deliver, because no returnees averaged five points or five rebounds, and Louisville failed to score more than 60 points a dozen times last season, losing six of those games.
If the transfers hold their own, and Onuaku, Johnson and Snider make solid freshman-to-sophomore improvement, Louisville should finish right behind the top tier in the ACC.