Rick Pitino raved about Louisville’s potential next season, suggesting Tuesday that the Cardinals’ length and speed mirrors the strengths of the 1996 NCAA championship squad he coached at archrival Kentucky.
“(By) no means do I say we have that type of talent,” he said. “But we have that type of length, that type of quickness, that type of athleticism, so we are going to play like that team.”
That’s high praise for a team that must replace its top three scorers, but it’s a way for the coach to try and move past a tumultuous season of scandal that engulfed his program.
Several investigations are ongoing into escort Katina Powell’s book allegations that former Louisville basketball staffer Andre McGee paid her and other strippers to perform for recruits and players from 2010-14. The school has self-imposed several penalties, including a postseason ban from last year’s NCAA Tournament and reductions in scholarships and recruiting visits.
Pitino has been mum about whether the NCAA has interviewed him as part of its investigation. But he talked about the scandal in the past tense Tuesday as he discussed next season’s bright prospects.
“It still bothers me, I’m not going to lie to you,” Pitino said. “It bothers me when a trust is broken, and I still have sleepless nights thinking (why) you did something like this. …
“You put it behind you by getting encouraged and excited about this schedule, the team we have and the potential to be a contender for a championship next year.”
There is so much potential, that Pitino foresees Louisville being able to show the same strengths as that Kentucky team that earned one of his two titles as a coach.
The group has a major void to fill.
Sophomore center/forward Chinanu Onuaku is entering the NBA Draft along with graduate transfers Trey Lewis and Damion Lee, a trio that combined for more than 37 points per game in helping the No. 16 Cardinals finish 23-8.
Despite the departures, Louisville returns plenty of size up front with 6-foot-10 senior Mangok Mathiang, who’s progressing from a season-ending foot injury. He’ll be joined by Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman, two 7-footers, and forwards Jaylen Johnson, Ray Spalding and Deng Adel — whom Pitino said he expects “big things” from.
“I’ve been toying all spring because I’ve had time on my hands with a style that would fit this team best,” Pitino said, “but we’re going to try to play just like that basketball team.”
Pitino named Mathiang and junior guard Quentin Snider (9.4 points per game, team-high 109 assists) as co-captains of a team that also returns dynamic guard Donovan Mitchell.
Though Louisville’s self-imposed sanctions include eliminating one scholarship for 2017 and 2018, and 30 fewer days to recruit, Pitino said the investigation hasn’t hurt the school on the recruiting trail. The Cardinals will welcome their first high school All-American since 2011 in 6-7 guard/forward V.J. King and 6-3 guard Frankie Hughes.
“We haven’t had any resistance whatsoever and we’re off to a great start,” Pitino said of recruiting, adding that he’d like to surrender the scholarships for this year if possible.
With a challenging schedule featuring neighboring Indiana, Purdue along with its usual Atlantic Coast Conference docket and annual Bluegrass showdown against Kentucky, Pitino suggested that looking ahead was the only choice.
“We want to get everything behind us,” Pitino said. “It was a very difficult year emotionally, it was a very difficult year for all of us and we’d like to put every single thing behind us. Sometimes you cherish the past, and other times you’d like to forget the past.”