LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Louisville is eager to play in the postseason again after sitting out last spring, and the Cardinals hope to make it a long stay once they get there.
Though the escort scandal that resulted in a self-imposed postseason ban and other penalties last season is still not resolved, coach Rick Pitino long ago shifted focus toward getting the Cardinals back into this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The NCAA last week accused the program of committing four Level 1 violations and the governing body criticized Pitino for failing to monitor former Cardinals staffer Andre McGee, whom the NCAA says provided improper benefits to recruits and players by hiring strippers.
The case now proceeds to a spring resolution.
For his part, Pitino is more than happy to talk hoops. And on the court, he believes if the Cardinals execute his trademark man-to-man defense, a deep tournament run is possible.
“It isn’t a new style,” Pitino said of his philosophy, “it’s just that we’ve confused a lot of people with our defense and playing our matchup zone. We have probably scrapped that and are playing 95 percent man-to-man. …. The tempo is much more up-tempo, even though we have always been an up-tempo team.”
Louisville’s initial challenge is finding offense with the departures of leading scorers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, graduate transfers who combined to average more than 27 points per game last season for a team that finished 23-8. The Cardinals also lost 6-foot-11 post player Chinanu Onuaku, who averaged 9.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per contest.
On the bright side, Pitino believes many players have scoring potential with several poised to take charge.
Junior guard Quentin Snider is the Cardinals’ top returning scorer and playmaker (9.4 points, 3.5 assists), but the question might be whether sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell or second-year wing Deng Adel – or both – have breakout seasons.
Mitchell, who became known last season for a series of high-flying dunks, is focused on improving his perimeter game. Adel is able to score from all over the floor and eagerly looks forward to creating easy chances by pressing ball handlers.
The Cardinals believe if they succeed on defense, scoring opportunities will come naturally.
Said Adel, “With our playing style of pressing and focusing on turning teams over, we all have the chance to get points.”
Some other things to look for in Louisville’s season:
LEANER, QUICKER: Mitchell has dropped 18 pounds and weighs around 195, while junior forward Jaylen Johnson has shed weight that Pitino believes was slowing him down. Both players appear faster and more agile and are eager to see what opportunities arise from being lighter. “I don’t get tired as easily and feel more energetic,” Mitchell said. “It might seem small, but that makes a big difference playing in this up-and-down system.”
MIDDLE MANAGEMENT: Onuaku’s departure for the NBA draft caught Pitino off guard, and filling the void he left in the pivot could be a concern. Junior 7-footers Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman continue to develop but must step up their games to man the inside until 6-10 senior Mangok Mathiang returns from a foot injury.
MORE TRANSFERS: Last season’s success with graduate transfers Lewis and Lee led Louisville to choose that route again. This year’s “one-and-done” is 6-1 guard Tony Hicks, who averaged 12.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game over three years at Pennsylvania. The Cardinals also added 6-5 sophomore Dwayne Sutton, who averaged 12 points per contest last season at UNC Asheville. He will sit out this season per NCAA transfer rules but has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
KEY GAMES: The Cardinals’ non-conference schedule presents plenty of challenges in preparation for the tough ACC docket. Besides their annual Bluegrass showdown against rival Kentucky (Dec. 21), they face Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (Nov. 30) and Indiana on New Year’s Eve in Indianapolis. Louisville also faces Virginia twice and hosts Duke on Jan. 14.
Gary B. Graves on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/GaryBGraves
AP College Basketball: collegebasketball.ap.org