At Louisville, it’s all about crazy chaos and salacious scandals, about a legendary basketball coach whose off-the-court missteps finally crossed the firing line and whose program is splitting time between the NCAA’s doghouse and the FBI’s investigative powers.
Not so fast. Despite all of the above, the Cardinals plan on fielding a basketball team in 2017-18, and despite the dismissals and distractions, Louisville has a chance to be a national factor. Maybe not a top-10 factor, but certainly a top-20 factor.
Head coach Rick Pitino, he of the two national titles, is gone, but a trove of talent remains. Sophomore V.J. King is poised for a breakout season. Point guard Quinten Snider is an experienced floor leader. Junior power forward/center Ray Spalding should be ready to put the pieces of his impressive game together.
Anas Mahmoud, who blocked 65 shots last season, continues to improve. And Deng Adel, the team’s leading returning scorer, is maturing into a formidable player. And don’t forget Dwayne Sutton, an interesting transfer who sat out last season after averaging 12 points and nearly eight rebounds per game as a freshman at UNC-Asheville. The 6-foot-5 Sutton could end up being a key piece in the U of L mix.
Yes, prized recruit Brian Bowen, whose family allegedly received an Adidas payment to attend Louisville, is under suspension and is unlikely to ever suit up in red and black. But 6-foot-11 freshman Malik Williams was ranked as a top-10 power forward in the 2018 class after averaging 21.5 points and 12.5 rebounds his senior season in high school. Lance Thomas, a 6-8 freshman, also figures to contribute.
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The wild card is David Padgett, the former Cardinals center who was promoted to interim head coach once Pitino was forced out by the Bowen/FBI mess. Some argued against putting a current assistant coach in charge — how does Louisville know that Padgett didn’t know what was going on? — but he was a popular choice inside the U of L locker room.
Padgett made a wise choice, recruiting Trent Johnson as his lead assistant and mentor. Johnson, 61, owns 16 years of head-coaching experience spread at four schools: Nevada, Stanford, LSU and TCU. He knows the ropes.
True, these are different ropes, ones that could easily strangle the Cardinals’ season. There will be headlines and lawsuits and the inescapable presence of Pitino, who one minute says he is going to lie low and the next minute is on the phone with WHAS’ Terry Meiners for a rambling round of victim-playing that in the end helps no one.
There are other considerations. Last year’s best player, Donovan Mitchell, now with the NBA’s Utah Jazz, will be difficult to replace. Also departed is Jaylen Johnson, who rode a career roller coaster but when on was an effective presence under the glass and on the press. After what seemed like a Perry Ellis-type career, center Mangok Mathiang has finally graduated.
It says here King is the key. The 6-foot-7 wing averaged 5.5 points and just 13 minutes per game last year. He started just seven games. Out of Mitchell’s shadow, however, the Cleveland native will have a chance to shine and is talented enough to take full advantage. He could be the bright light at end of the Louisville’s dark tunnel.
You could say the same for the team. After the summer explosion that rocked the program (again), no doubt the players just want to play basketball. Away from the investigation. Away from the headlines. Away from the turmoil. Hoops is their refuge.
Down the road, Louisville basketball is sure to suffer, but this year these Cards have a chance to be pretty good.