As mid-January 2015 approaches, Rick Pitino is giving the same excuses he did in November as to why his young bench has failed to be overly effective on the court.
Not physically strong enough, not picking up the defense, not quick enough, not aggressive enough…following almost every game, he says at least one of those things about one or more of his bench players. Pitino lights up when speaking about his 2015 recruiting class, but he almost winces every time he has to answer a question about the 2014 class.
Louisville did not get a single point from its bench yesterday at North Carolina, following a game against Clemson where it scored just two points. Those two points came off of a tip in by usual starter Chinanu Onuaku. The lack of production from the bench yesterday was a major factor in the loss to the Tar Heels, who received 20 points from its bench.
Three of the five starters for Louisville played quality games, doing everything they could to get the Cards the road win. Terry Rozier and Chris Jones combined for 44 points and 10 assists, once again looking like the best backcourt on the country, and Jones again played like a true point guard. Onuaku played his best game at the center position since November, scoring eight points and grabbing eight rebounds to go along with a pair of steals and a pair of blocked shots. Wayne Blackshear played so-so, scoring 10 points, but he missed two wide open threes in the final minutes that could have sealed the game for Louisville, and Montrezl Harrell just did not seem like himself.
Louisville cannot expect all five starters to play a perfect game every game, and when someone has an off game, it would be comforting for the team to know they have someone, preferably multiple players, on the bench ready to step in and contribute. So far this season, that player has yet to present himself, and it has contributed greatly in both of Louisville’s losses.
Center Anas Mahmoud has been perhaps the most efficient player off the bench, showing off an impressive basketball IQ and soft touch. However, he tends to get pushed around by everyone from the point guard to the center, and his production has dropped off the last few games.
Point guard Quentin Snider has shown off a smooth shot and looks to create for his teammates, but his lack of quickness is a liability on defense, and it tends to get himself trapped when handling the ball. His backcourt mate on the bench, sophomore Anton Gill, is just having a terrible second season and cannot get going in any phase of the game.
Power forward Jaylen Johnson and wing Shaqquan Aaron are probably the two most physically talented freshman, but Pitino has repeatedly stated they are having trouble adjusting to his system. Each player had NCAA issues, and Johnson was forced to join the team late and Aaron could not play in an actual game until December. Each player has the talent to contribute, especially when Harrell needs a breather or Blackshear is having an off game.
Center Mangok Mathiang just has not progressed at all, and his careless turnover in the final minutes at UNC was crucial. He blocks the occasional shot, makes the occasional baby hook, but more often than not, he gets his tail handed to him by the competition.
Pitino has explained why each of them is seeing more bench than court. Mahmoud is not strong enough, Snider is not quick enough, while Johnson and Aaron are not mentally there yet. Gill and Mathiang…well, it is what it is.
The players need to make giant leaps in the coming months, but just as important, if not more so, is Pitino’s development of them. He can say what he wants about them, but at the end of the day, these are the players he recruited. If he has to constantly question them, and if he has no confidence in them (he is quick to pull them when they make a mistake), why recruit them?
It is not exactly a secret Pitino has struggled on the recruiting trail in recent years. Perhaps his success with Gorgui Dieng made him believe he could work that same magic with any big-man project. So far, though, that is anything but true, and if anything, Dieng has been the exception to the rule. He has taken chance on project types like Mathiang, Akoy Agau, and Matz Stockman, but none have shown anything. Mathiang, as said above, has not progressed at all, while Agau has already transferred out of the program. Stockman is buried on the bench and has looked lost in the minimal minutes on the court he has seen.
Of the 2011, 2012, and 2013 recruiting classes, six of the eleven members of those classes have either transferred out of the program or been dismissed. Clearly there were several misses, and being that he has taken chances on projects who might be good down the road rather than land players who can without a doubt contribute, he has no one to blame but himself in that regard.
That fact likely has not escaped him, and his 2015 class is filled with immediate impact players with star potential. He may also add one or two graduate transfers who can provide an immediate impact. Yet, for now, he has who he has and will have to get something out of each of them.
Aaron and Johnson are two players who play with no fear and appear to have the basketball skills to really deliver for Louisville. If x’s and o’s are the areas where they are behind, they need to be studying their playbooks like they are cramming for finals. If Mahmoud’s toughness (or lack thereof) is holding him back, it may be time for the coach to give him a little tough love.
Whatever has to be done, he has to do it. The starting five is talented enough to compete with anybody in the top five, but like any human being, they are capable of fatigue. It showed Saturday during the final minutes, and it will continue to show as the season progresses if nothing changes.
The bench development will be the difference in being just a tournament team and playing in Indianapolis in April 2015 as part of the Final Four. It will help this season and could also determine what kind of team the Cards will have next season.
The Cards definitely lose Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear and in all likelihood, they lose Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell as well. That leaves no proven playmakers on next year’s team, so the bench development could potentially forecast a very positive or negative future in both the short term and the long term.