Rick Pitino will need to work his Hall of Fame magic as Louisville must replace its three leading scorers, top rebounder and deal with the ongoing fallout from an NCAA investigation that resulted in the school imposing a postseason ban a year ago. The Cardinals expect to be eligible for the 2017 NCAA Tournament but cannot be certain until the school receives official word from the NCAA on the sex scandal that shook the program last fall.
Nevertheless, Pitino says he likes his returning pieces. He has also done more with less, but his primary challenges will be settling on a center, developing depth at point guard and finding multiple 3-point threats.
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Rick Pitino
2015-16 RECORD (ACC): 23–8 (12–6)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: None
2016-17 PREDICTION: Fourth in the ACC
G Damion Lee (15.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.0 apg)
G Trey Lewis (11.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.3 apg)
C Chinanu Onuaku (9.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg)
Pitino maintains that Louisville will be fine without center Chinanu Onuaku, who jumped to the NBA after his sophomore season. Not everybody is as certain, considering Onuaku was the team’s top rebounder (8.5 rpg), third-leading scorer (9.9 ppg) and best interior defender. His replacements come with questions. Senior Mangok Mathiang missed the end of 2016 as well as summer drills with a foot injury. Anas Mahmoud is 7'0" and 210 pounds; he hoped to bulk up to 225 pounds but actually lost some weight during the summer. Matz Stockman, another 7-footer, has a nice left-handed hook but has footwork issues. Look for Pitino to play the hot and healthy hand.
The Cardinals are considerably stronger at forward. Deng Adel, a sophomore, struggled with injuries last season, but Pitino says he believes Adel has the talent to become the Cardinals’ best player. Adel, 6'7", is a powerful slasher who must improve his 3-point shot after hitting only seven (in 20 attempts) last season.
Raymond Spalding, a sophomore, and Jaylen Johnson, a junior, provide options at power forward. Spalding is a better defender, with the quickness and wingspan to defend away from the basket. He averaged a modest 5.6 points per game last season but hit 56.0 percent from the field. Johnson is stronger and plays with more grit. He’s likely to become Louisville’s best low-post scorer, but he scored in double figures only one time against an ACC opponent last season.
The battle for playing time will be intense with Quentin Snider (junior), Donovan Mitchell (sophomore), Tony Hicks (grad transfer) and V.J. King (freshman) giving Pitino the option of a three-guard attack.
Snider, the top returning scorer at 9.4 points per game, will serve as a co-captain with Mathiang. He is the only returning player who made more than 18 3-pointers last season, but his job will be to initiate the offense and direct the Cardinals’ match-up zone defense. His finishing needs work. Snider made 40.4 percent of his 3-point attempts but only 40.1 of his 2-pointers.
As much as Pitino likes Adel, many believe Mitchell will develop into the Cardinals’ signature player. He’s a muscular high-flier who plays in the old Doctors of Dunk style. Defenders will continue to give Mitchell open perimeter shots until he can improve his 25.0 percent 3-point stroke.
King, a McDonald’s All-American, is Louisville’s most acclaimed recruit since Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear. He’s a mature swingman who figures to earn an opportunity at off guard as well as small forward.
Hicks is the X-factor. After leading Penn in scoring as a sophomore and junior, he did not play for the Quakers last season following the departure of coach Jerome Allen. Hicks is the latest graduate transfer to play for Pitino, who had success with both Damion Lee and Trey Lewis last season.
V.J. King is prolific in the open court but must refine his perimeter game. Tony Hicks, a grad transfer from Penn, ranked sixth in the Ivy League in scoring (13.2 ppg) in 2014-15 before sitting out last season after a coaching change. The Cards will look to him to provide some 3-point shooting.
Louisville is eager to make a major splash. The Cardinals have the talent to deliver, but this team has some issues.
Snider is a poised and savvy leader who is comfortable sharing the basketball. Adel and Mitchell have the ability and confidence to make the jump from freshman role players to sophomore stars. Pitino needs Hicks, King and Adel to develop as 3-point shooting threats and for Mahmoud to increase his strength and intensity in the middle. Johnson has the upper-body strength and touch to develop into the most consistent low-post threat.
It’s a top-25 team with the potential to become a top-10 squad and legitimate contender in the ACC if all of that happens.