Five random predictions for Louisville basketball 2015-16:
1. The stripper scandal will hang over the season.
Rick Pitino can claim that he just wants to coach basketball. He can skip the ACC media day and pretend it will all be blue skies and bright lights if he just ignores the questions about the sordid scandal in which parties allegedly including strippers and prostitutes were held to entertain basketball recruits and players over four years. For Pitino, it's hear no evil, speak no evil. Good luck with that.
Wherever the Cards go on the road this season, they can expect signs and hoots and derisive cheers. And those will be the polite places. The news conference questions might fade — "I'm only answering basketball questions," Pitino will bark — but the scandal will hang over the U of L season like a dark cloud ready to bring thunder and a driving rain at any second. Will that rain end up washing Pitino away?
2. This will be Pitino's toughest coaching task.
Despite giving starting guard Chris Jones the boot late in the season, despite an assortment of rock-throwers from the perimeter, Pitino used his considerable coaching skills to drag the Cards all the way to the East Region finals last season before U of L lost to Tom Izzo's usual March sorcery. Pitino will have a much tougher coaching task this year.
Aside from dealing with the stripper scandal, Pitino lost quicksilver guard Terry Rozier, glass-eating monster Montrezl Harrell, the mercurial Jones and underproductive Wayne Blackshear. Those just happened to be U of L's top four scorers last season. The Cards picked up some needed additions — more on that later — but fitting the 2015-16 pieces together will test Pitino's skill set.
3. Damion Lee will be a star.
The 6-foot-6 graduate transfer averaged 21.4 points per game last season for Drexel before deciding to cast his lot with the Cardinals. He scored 36 points in U of L's first game on its San Juan summer trip in Puerto Rico. On a team that looks to lack scorers, Lee can fill it up.
Little wonder that reportedly 75 teams contacted Lee when he made it known that he was open to leaving Philadelphia. Pitino has compared Lee's game to that of Ron Mercer, whom he coached at Kentucky. "I think this young man has a chance at greatness," Pitino told Scout.com's Jody Demling during the Puerto Rico trip.
4. Chinanu Onuaku will be their most improved player.
After nearly taking the exit ramp out of Louisville after last season, Onuaku dedicated himself to be an improved player over the off-season, and the commitment should pay off. Onuaku started for the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the World University Games, averaging about five points and five rebounds and blocking 12 shots. He also adopted the Rick Barry underhand free throw method, a sign that he was willing to do whatever it takes.
Pitino needs Onuaku to come through. Redshirt junior Mangkok Mathiang has never been able to fill Gorgui Dieng's shoes. Freshman Raymond Spalding, the 6-foot-10 former Trinity star, is a work in progress. If Louisville surprises, Onuaku could be the key.
5. Louisville will be fighting just to make the tournament.
After the embarrassing loss to Kenneth Faried and Morehead State in the first round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the Cards have been on a roll. They crashed the 2012 Final Four. They won the national title in 2013. They lost to Kentucky in a 2014 Sweet 16 game. Michigan State needed overtime to eliminate the 'Ville in the 2015 East Region finals.
True, the Cardinals could adopt an us-against-the-world mentality in the face of the NCAA investigation and use the bonding power to shock the world. Don't count on it. The Cards look like a middle-of-the-pack ACC team that should make the Big Dance but won't be around past the first two songs.