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ACC Preview #12 - Louisville

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Michigan vs Louisville
Mar 19, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Louisville Cardinals forward Ray Spalding (13) and forward V.J. King (0) battle for the ball with Michigan Wolverines forward Moritz Wagner (13) during the first half in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. 
Thomas Joseph-USA TODAY Sports

It all seemed so straightforward a few weeks ago. Louisville was getting over the whole prostitutes entertaining teenagers business. Rick Pitino would have to serve a five-game suspension, something he said destroyed his faith in the NCAA, but he was going to do it. The national title might be taken away and various other penalties were imposed.

Louisville lost some talent but got a rare late 5-star addition when Brian Bowen seemed to fall into their laps. The Cards were expected to finish first or second in the ACC and to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Everyone was ready to move on.

Then a bomb went off. The FBI investigation into recruiting and shoe companies exploded and the shrapnel cost Pitino his job (even though he hasn’t formally been fired his office was cleaned out and his effects returned to him). His boss may also be on the way out (there’s an interim A.D. but Tom Jurich retains considerable support). Like Pitino, assistant coaches Jordan Fair and Kenny Johnson are on administrative leave which leaves the third assistant, David Padgett, running the show solo at the age of 32.

Just two years ago he was the director of basketball operations. Now he’s running what amounts to a vast basketball empire and until Wednesday, essentially on his own.

He was actually running practice by himself which is basically impossible. Even a hyper organized guy like Coach K would need some help. You can’t possibly monitor all the stations and manage all the details. Slippage is inevitable.

Padgett did get some temporary help: Director of basketball operations Michael Bowden, video coordinator Logan Baumann and graduate assistant RJ Evans are stepping in. All of them could be very bright but none are experienced.

Then there’s recruiting. It would be a nightmare anyway even if Louisville had, say, hired an experienced guy like Tom Crean, but with another major NCAA case looming, there’s no certainty of anything other than heartache and struggle.

The Yum! Center, Louisville’s impressive new basketball palace, was already struggling. Last year bankruptcy was mentioned, not for the first time, and the bonds which fund the arena aren’t investment grade, so the rates are correspondingly higher. The only way to bring those rates down is to produce more revenue and refinance, but given Louisville’s situation, the Cards are not going to be much help.

So that’s the starting point: Padgett is in a nearly impossible situation. Pitino’s empire is collapsing all around him and he’s not even staffed up enough to run practice, much less push back against perceptions. He may turn out to be Dean Smith c. 1961, a brilliant but utterly unknown young coach in a tough spot.

More likely, he’ll work hard, struggle, be lauded for his effort and be somewhere else next season.

From last year Louisville lost Jaylen Johnson, Mangok Mathiang, Tony Hicks, Donovan Mitchell and David Levitch.

Mitchell was taken by Denver with the 13th pick then traded to Utah. Johnson wasn’t drafted but is with the Bulls for at least the short term and can easily find work overseas. Mathiang also wasn’t drafted but now is with the Charlotte Hornets G-League team.

Other than Levitch, they’re significant losses.

Mitchell was really talented and effective, while Johnson was erratic but certainly gifted. And Mathiang was a consistent and mature presence in the paint.

Louisville returns 6-2 Quentin Snyder and 7-0 Anas Mahmoud, both seniors, 6-10 Ray Spalding and 6-7 Deng Adel, juniors, and 6-6 VJ King and Ryan McMahon, both sophomores.

That’s a pretty solid group, one that Pitino must have looked forward to coaching. We assume Padgett will keep most of what Pitino ran in place since he can’t really be expected to make massive changes along with everything else he’s dealing with.

Snyder is as solid a point guard as there is in the ACC. He’s not hugely athletic but at that position you’re better off giving up some athleticism for smart decision making. This team is going to miss Pitino on game day but Snyder could lessen that somewhat by keeping his guys steady.

VJ King is likely to be the starting wing. He wasn’t quite there last year - his offense was still erratic - but he’s talented and can develop into something special.

He needs to learn to work without the ball and to be more aggressive when has it. He’s talented enough to drive on just about anyone but tends to settle.

That said, all that separates him from being an elite player is time and effort. Obviously at 6-7 he can play forward as well but we’d expect Deng to have that spot locked down. Of course Louisville could go with a smaller lineup and run both guys at forward.

Ryan McMahon is an interesting player. He was an under the radar guy that Dick Vitale fell in love with and Pitino eventually picked up on the kid. He’s small and slight but offensively he’s been compared to Mark Price. Price was underrated his entire career but the guy was phenomenal. McMahon is a gym rat so keep an eye on him. He’s a redshirt sophomore.

The rest of the backcourt will be freshmen: 6-2 Darius Perry, 6-1 Jacob Redding, and 6-1 Jo Griffin.

Redding and Griffin are both walk-ons although somewhat different. Griffin is an invited walk-on who could eventually become a meaningful player. Redding is basically on the team because he’s been buddies with 6-11 freshman Malik Williams since elementary school.

If we see much of them this year, Louisville will be having serious issues. Perry is different.

A four-star recruit, Perry will most likely back up Snyder this year although Padgett could certainly run two point guards, a la Duke’s Jason Williams and Chris Duhon in 2001-02.

Perry, who says he went “down” to Louisville for his official visit, may not have a solid grasp of geography but he’s a solid prospect. He’s said to be an excellent defender with an erratic shot.

So why Louisville, Darius? Here’s what he told Scout:

"I love how Pitino coaches and criticizes everything that they did. He makes everyone that comes through a better player. He tries his hardest and even in individuals he’s standing right there critiquing. I loved that the most. That’s how my dad is. I know it’s something that I know I’ll hear from my dad anyways. My dad has had a big influence on me and if I can’t play for him I want someone that is similar to him."

"One night the players were sitting around and talking about how much Pitino cares for you and how it’s not going to be easy, but just how much he cares about you. They just talked so high of him."

"When they talked about each other they talked about how they always make sure each one of them are doing what they are supposed to be doing and just how cohesive they are and like a family they are. Not to say that Georgia didn’t have the same thing with their players, but those two factors with Pitino kind of being like my dad was more of a factor and the players being so brotherly with each other, I just kind of decided that I really liked that place. Then today after me and my dad talked about it for real, I said that’s where I want to go."

Pitino’s fall must be particularly deflating for that kid.

Essentially Louisville’s backcourt comes down to Snyder, King, Perry and McMahon, with Deng capable of helping out too although he’s still turnover-prone.

Deng, who has only been playing since he was 14, has come a long way, and he’s good enough to consider entering the draft last season. He’s a good but not great athlete. He’s solid offensively and has continued to improve his ball handling, which was a problem earlier in his career. Turnovers have been an issue but aside from steady coaching, playing with a guy like Snyder will help as much as anything. You can tell a guy something from the sideline but really, Snyder is likely to be his best teacher.

He still needs to vary his game and learn some different skills but is he a potential NBA player? Sure.

Deng originally came from Sudan as a refugee, moved to Australia and then to the U.S.

Every so often he must close his eyes at night and marvel at his own life.

We don’t know if Louisville native Dwayne Sutton can help the backcourt or not. We’re not saying he can’t; we just don’t know enough about him to say.

Sutton went away for his freshman year to Asheville and then transferred back home.

He averaged 12.0 ppg and 7.7 rpg with the Bulldogs and that rebounding in particular is intriguing.

He’s actually a preferred walk-on this season but he’s worth a scholarship and will probably get one down the road. On the other hand, Louisville apparently offers tuition remission to dependent children of employees and his mother works there, so he may not have to pay anyway and Louisville gets a freebie and a nifty evasion of NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions (pick your scandal).

Other forwards on the roster include freshmen Lance Thomas and Jordan Nwora.

Thomas picked Louisville over Florida and Miami and USC, with the latter two also implicated in the Adidas scandal. Florida has a Nike contract. He’s seen as a 4-star forward. He’s listed anywhere from 6-8 to 6-10 but Louisville pegs him at 6-8.

Here’s what recruiting guru Jerry Meyer told USA Today about Thomas: "He’s not a finished product yet, but he has great length and he is very athletic and he has a broad skill base. He has a lot of tools to work with. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops at Louisville. I think he fits very well in their system of play. I think he may be one of the guys we look back and say he should’ve been ranked higher."

The 6-8 Nwora is a native of Amherst, New York, who attended Vermont Academy. He says he can definitely offer shooting, something Louisville could have used last season.

Like Perry, Pitino was his main reason for choosing Syracuse, telling

“They told me I could come in and make a big impact right away and play a lot of minutes as a freshman. Coach Pitino...[made it] clear that I would be able to come in and make an impact right away and play a lot and get to the league...I felt really good about it, especially it being said from a Hall of Fame coach so I knew that it would be a good decision.”

And the escort scandal?

“They talked about it a little bit...[T]hey just want to look to the future and put everything behind them because they’ve already took the highest punishment possible. The only thing that could happen is Pitino would not coach maybe for one or two games this season, something like that maybe. I’m not worried about that really at all. Whatever happens, it’s not going to affect me going there.”

It’s certainly affected Brian Bowen. Bowen, who committed quite late, is still listed on the roster but he was implicated in the scandal and is currently suspended. He may never play for Louisville.

Louisville has three basic options in the post: Mahmoud, Spalding and Williams.

Mahmoud has come a long way since his early days at Louisville when Pitino made a crack about a runaway win: "I don’t like to see any team struggle like that. I really don’t. I tried everything. We played four white guys and an Egyptian."

He played that Egyptian almost a full half per game last year and Mahmoud averaged 2.1 bpg which is pretty good for less than a half. He’ll never be a huge factor on offense but shot blocking is a handy skill.

Spalding, a junior and a native of Louisville, averaged 5.9 ppg and 5.5 rpg. Like Mathiang and Mahmoud, he was up and down, but he had some really good games. He had 11 points and nine rebounds against Purdue, 10 boards at Notre Dame, 12 at Georgia Tech and 18 points and 11 rebounds against Syracuse.

Don’t expect to see him much in the last few minutes of a tight game: he hit just 50% of his free throws last season. Maybe Mathiang can work with him on his foul shooting (Mathiang improved his by adopting the underhanded technique that Rick Barry has sworn by for decades).

Malik Williams could be a major factor at center. He was a coveted recruit who averaged 23.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.9 blocked shots in high school. Impressively, he also hit 44 three pointers.

Also available: UConn transfer Steve Enoch. Pitino said this about Enoch: "When we worked out Steven, we came away extremely impressed with his offensive skills. He has good size with terrific potential."

That reminds us of the old crack if you’re so smart then why aren’t you rich? At UConn Enoch got just over 12 minutes and averaged 3.4 points, 2.3 rebounds.

Somehow he got to play for the Armenian National Team in 2016 in FIBA competition and averaged 17.3 points, 15.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots.

Jury’s out basically.

So Louisville has a lot of talent but the program has been effectively decapitated. Louisville fired assistant Jordan Fair on Wednesday October 11, and Padgett immediately hired former LSU coach Trent Johnson (assistant Kenny Johnson is still employed for now but suspended). That gives him an experienced and steady hand who can help run practice and coordinate recruiting. Padgett can’t relax but he might get a good night’s sleep for a change.

There’s no way to tell about this team, frankly. Padgett says the best thing is the guys are committed and working hard, but whatever else you can say about Pitino, and a lot has been said lately, his teams were always superbly conditioned and prepared. One of the most electrifying things in the game was watching his teams mount improbable comebacks.

That’s all over now. Padgett has a lot to work with but he’s young and the situation is dire. His organizational skills are probably more important right now than his day-to-day coaching skills, particularly with Johnson on board to help steady things.

For this team, unity and stability are the immediate goals. If Padgett can achieve that and have a team that is NCAA tournament worthy (being eligible is another issue), then he’s done a tremendous job.

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