Louisville will lose Terry Rozier, Montrezl Harrell, Wayne Blackshear, and of course Chris Jones next season, four players who accounted for 84% of the Cards’ offense this season. That is a tough blow for any team, but as Louisville is set to add multiple pieces to the roster and get bigger roles out of the developing younger players, coach Rick Pitino could still have a team he could position to make another deep run.
Pitino said following the Cards’ Elite Eight loss to Michigan State that he had no interest in rebuilding. He wanted to reload. So far, he has done a fine job of ensuring next year’s roster will be welcoming immediate impact players, and he may add one or two more.
Looking into the 2015-16 crystal ball, there are no clear visuals for how this team will shape out, but losing four starters and key contributors is not the death sentence it could be for some teams. In fact, there are more reasons to be optimistic rather than skeptical as Louisville embarks on a new journey with a completely new-look team.
An inexperienced, but talented, roster
It is no secret the 2014 freshmen class did not exactly provide much of a punch this season. However, several flashed tremendous potential, and with another offseason of conditioning and learning to play a bigger role, multiple players appear ready to thrive next season.
The first that should jump out to most fans is point guard Quentin Snider. If there were any questions remaining as to whether he could play under Pitino, he answered them and then some when he replaced the dismissed Chris Jones in the starting lineup. The chemistry of the team appeared to improve dramatically on the court, as he never forced anything and always looked to create for teammates. And despite only averaging 4 points per game and shooting just 35% on the season, he averaged 11 points and 40% shooting during the tournament. He still has work to do to become a prototypical defensive ball hawk for Pitino, but he showed qualities of both leadership and scoring ability that should grow with more time.
A player who could be even more valuable than Snider down the stretch is power forward Jaylen Johnson. He rarely saw the court this season due to having the country’s best power forward playing ahead of him, but towards the end of the season, he drew Pitino’s praise on multiple occasions and made some nice plays. He showed a nose for the basketball, as he made multiple tip-ins around the basket, and he showed off a nice mid-range jumper, too. He is an extremely hard-working player who comes from good basketball lineage (his mother was a star at Michigan), and with offseason work shoring up his mind and body, he could provide a major impact as the starting power forward next season.
Another player who showed potential, but was clearly still learning, was 7-2 center Anas Mahmoud. He was by far the most offensively gifted center on this past year’s team, but due to his confusion regarding matchup zone defense and some other areas, he appeared a little lost at times and thus did not play much. His talent, though, is obvious. He is a big man with a guard’s mentality, and he has a humble, good-natured personality who can dribble, shoot, and has touch around the basket. His potential and skill set is Frank Kaminsky-like (who also was a non-factor as a freshman), and if he adds muscle and gets a better hold of the defense, he may start at the five-spot next season.
The biggest question mark is center Chinanu Onuaku. He could turn into one of the best defensive centers in the country and is an outstanding outlet passer, but he will have to put in the work. Pitino was critical of his work ethic all throughout the season, and as a result, he want from beginning the season as the starter to seeing his minutes diminish and playing off the bench. He could start and play major minutes, or he could ride the pine next season. It really will be up to him.
Grad transfer(s) will bring scoring, shooting, leadership
Louisville loses scoring next season, but they also lose veteran leadership, as the eldest player will be junior-to-be center Mangok Mathiang. The rest of the team consists of freshmen, sophomores, and walk-ons. This fact had not escaped Pitino, who said late in the season he planned to bring in a graduate transfer or two. He got off to a great start by adding Cleveland State star Trey Lewis on Tuesday.
Lewis averaged 16 points per game and hit 42% of his three-point attempts, making 96 total. Only 20 players in the country hit more threes. He also torched Louisville for 24 points in a late Novemeber contest at the YUM! Center. Now, he will be returning to the YUM! Center, only this time donning the red and black.
Cleveland.com’s David Cassilo spoke with Lewis on his decision, and Lewis said after discussing it with fellow Ohioan Terry Rozier, he knew Rick Pitino was the type of coach he wanted to play for. He displayed impeccable leadership qualities while guiding a less-than-talented Cleveland State squad and appears set to be a leader for Louisville.
He is not the only grad transfer Pitino has his eye on, though. Drexel star Damion Lee, who ranked 5th in the NCAA in scoring at 21.5 points per game and hit 39% of his 169 three-point attempts, has heard from Louisville and is considering the Cards. He also scored 30 or more points five times throughout the season, including a 32-point performance where he made 8 of 11 three-point attempts. At 6-6, 200 lbs., he would be a likely candidate to start from day one at the small forward spot.
Lee is also regarded as an incredible team leader and was given the nickname “Coach Lee” by the Drexel staff after his determination to keep learning about the game and for the way he talked to his younger teammates.
He would be an ideal compliment to Lewis, but he is being sought out by several of the country’s top programs, including his hometown school of Maryland. He expressed his desire to play for a national championship-caliber program (of which Louisville is) and with Kenny Johnson’s ties to that area, too, Louisville should still be in the mix.
Impact freshmen on the way
There were times this season when Rick Pitino did not sound like he enjoyed coaching this particular Louisville team. He would bring up names like Gorgui Dieng, Luke Hancock, Peyton Siva, and Russ Smith often, as if he pined for the good ol’ days. Sometimes, he appeared at his most pleasant when speaking of his 2015 recruiting class, of he would go out of his way to praise on multiple occasions.
And why not? It is arguably his best class since the 2011 class, and he has acted as if it is “the” best he has had. 5-star guard Donovan Mitchell is a dynamic scorer who is physically ready to play college ball and will attack the basket without hesitation. Pitino likened his character to Peyton Siva, and those who follow Pitino know how much of a compliment that is. He completely dominated the AAU circuit over the summer of 2014, elevating to 5-star status, and he has a very coachable attitude.
Small forward Deng Adel appears to be another gem discovery by Pitino. Adel, who is of Sudanese descent, has only been in the US a little over a year, but he is considered one of the top wing prospects in the country and a top-30 prospect. He has a humble, hard-working attitude similar to Gorgui Dieng, which Pitino obviously loves. He is a little bit of a do-everything forward who can score when he needs to, create for teammates when he needs to, and is a good defender as well. His game has been compared to Miami Heat star Luol Deng.
Ray Spalding, the local product from Trinity, skyrocketed after a standout summer and ended up gaining 5-star status on 247Sports.com. The lead recruiting analyst for the site, Jerry Meyer, believes he is a future NBA player. He possesses the offensive skill set most of Louisville’s bigs lacked this past season, and while he does not blow up the stat sheet at Trinity, that is mainly due to the staff there not making him the focal point of the offense (for whatever reason). There have been questions surrounding his work ethic, but he appears all in on doing what Pitino will ask of him and could provide an offensive spark off the bench at the 4-spot.
The Cards recently added a verbal commit in Florida guard Ryan McMahon, a sharpshooting, but undersized guard who averaged about 28 points a game his senior season. Pitino has already stated, though, that he will not play much, if at all, his freshman year, but another Florida high school standout Pitino is after just may.
Maverick Rowan is a hot-shooting wing who has won state titles in both Pennsylvania and Florida. He is currently a member of the class of 2016, but he his already 18 years old, and a recent report has revealed he is looking for a new high school that will allow him to take the classes he needs to graduate. If he does, Louisville appears to be the landing spot, and it will give the Cards a surefire shooter who can make an impact as a freshman.
This was far from his most memorable season, and he made his share of errant mistakes prior to the tournament, but for the umpteenth time, Rick Pitino proved that he is still without a doubt one of the finest game coaches in the country.
He took a team that looked like was on its way to a first-round exit and had them a free throw away from Louisville’s third Final Four in the past four seasons. This was a team who got nothing out of the center position, had no reliable outside shooters, had virtually no depth, and who lost their starting point guard at the end of the regular season. Yet, they were one of the final eight teams remaining.
Now, he will still have a young team next year, but the returning roster will consist of willing learners and a bench he can look to for minutes. He already added one of the best point guards in the country in sharpshooter Trey Lewis from Cleveland State, and he will likely add one or both of Rowan or Lee. Add them to an impressive freshman class and a returning roster who will grow over the summer, and he can once again work his magic.
No, he is not perfect. He probably should have utilized his bench earlier in the season to get them seasoning. He probably should not have forced the matchup zone down their throats when they could not understand it. He has had several recruiting misses and has had more players transfer than any other championship-winning coach since he has been at Louisville.
Yet, he has proven once again that he can do more with less as well as or better than any other coach in the country. The 2014-15 team was one of his worst teams in the past several years (of which he is not without blame), and he took them to an Elite Eight. There is no reason to think he is slowing down any time soon, and while this season marked the end of an era, the excitement he has for the incoming class and returning roster makes it look like he feels he has a couple of more runs in him.