Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals are still battling the realm of perception. Thanks to the escort scandal that became a national story — not only a sports talking-point — people are going to continue to bring it up until the university does something to make us forget.
The scandal resulted in a self-imposed penalty and much backlash from many a non-Louisville supporter. Couple that with the university hiring Bobby Petrino to coach its football team, it can be argued — halfheartedly, with tongue firmly implanted in cheek — that Louisville, Kentucky, specifically the university that resides in the city, is a home of aging deviant men.
Wait…I was kidding.
In terms of impact on college basketball, save for restricting itself from postseason play, there has been none felt for the Cardinals. It is business as usual, and the Al Pacino lookalike remains as one of the nation’s best coaches.
That’s why it comes to the shock of no one that the Cards are expected to do well in the upcoming season. Sure, scandals make for interesting headlines, and the team did lose some key talent from last season’s squad, but Pitino didn’t become a household name only because he prefers to commit his adultery in chain restaurants — he also happens to be a historically great coach.
Morals in sports are far less important than narratives would make one believe. We have example after example of someone being excellent at their job the world of sports, but having the ethics and character of a villain from a Harriet Beacher Stowe novel.
Anyway, unless the NCAA decides to (untimely) hurl more punishment on the program, the team will be eligible for the NCAA Tournament this season — which is a good thing, considering they will be good enough to make it.
Louisville will be, presumably, led by Quentin Snider. As a sophomore, the 6-foot-2 guard averaged nearly 10 points and 3.5 assists per outing. While he is not the most offensively prolific Cardinals talent, Pitino-coached teams are typically great due to their guard play.
Snider won’t be alone in attempting to do magnificent things in the backcourt. Now a sophomore, Donovan Mitchell has an entire collegiate season under his belt, and should be able to parlay his athletic talents — and he is extremely athletic — into more production this campaign. As a freshman, he averaged 7.4 points and 3.4 rebounds in only 19 minutes per game.
Then there’s highly-touted freshman VJ King. Ranked in most recruiting service outlets’ top-25, King has the potential to be legitimately special. A 6-foot-7 small forward with the ability to play some power forward (or even the two) if need be, it might take some time for him to adjust to a higher-level of competition. Then again, that’s what non-conference schedules are for.
Also returning is a somewhat unknown commodity in Deng Adel, who was slowed by injury as a freshman, but should be much improved as a sophomore.
There are other question marks for this roster, too.
Pitino is going to need to figure out what he is going to do at center. With Chinanu Onuaku now being paid to apply his craft, the coach has several options at his disposal, but not one of them happens to be a sure-thing. Not to mention, most of his bigs are actually forwards.
Jaylen Johnson, who is far more power forward than center, should help in alleviating some of the pressure near the rim. After seeing far more time as a sophomore than as a freshman, Johnson was by no means the most productive big man in the history of the sport — only averaging five points and 3.5 rebounds per game — but he is a guy who isn’t afraid to bang underneath.
Let’s not forget a slew of truly unknown talents. Mangok Mathiang, a 6-foot-10 forward-center hybrid, is now a senior, and has shown improvement season-over-season, but can he handle playing more than 20 minutes per outing? It is something, which can be due to those ahead of him on the depth chart, he’s failed to do in three years at Louisville.
Maybe it will be Raymond Spalding who bubbles up. Another 6-foot-10 forward who saw his fair share of minutes last season, Spalding is far less a traditional big, and appears more like those new fancy stretch-fours that are all the rage. Not to mention, unless he has put on major muscle this offseason, he’s 215 pounds soaking wet.
As the Cardinals enter the 2016-17 season, its backcourt appears fine in talent and with depth. The small forward position seems set in stone with King ready to take the, um, throne. The power forward spot may once again be a rotation of utility guys, each of who bring a special talent to the table. The only glaring issue is at the five.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals are not perfect. The expectations bestowed on this team has as much to do with how we assume — deservedly so, I might add — Pitino will develop his talent and get the most out of them. But there is very little proof in this currently yet-to-be-crafted pudding.