There’s a cloud hanging over the Louisville Cardinals, but it shouldn’t stop them from being successful
If you’re sitting down to rank the best 25 teams in the country heading into the college basketball season, what do you do with a program that finished last season in the top 10 by virtually every metric, returns a slew of important rotation pieces and welcomes a strong recruiting class but also lost a trio of valuable players, including an NBA lottery pick?
Oh, and it’s missing its late-breaking 5-star recruit who was caught up in a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe that ultimately resulted in the firing of the team’s Hall of Fame head coach.
The Louisville Cardinals have become the poster-child for the federal investigation rocking college basketball at its core. Although other schools were referenced in charging documents, Louisville stuck out because of the salacious details surrounding the recruitment of Brian Bowen, past allegations of impropriety and the reputation of its now former head coach.
Assistant coach David Padgett has since been promoted to interim head coach to replace the ousted Rick Pitino. The 32-year-old has assembled a rather impressive last-minute staff that includes former TCU head coach Trent Johnson, former Ohio State assistant Greg Paulus and R.J. Evans, a staff member who was promoted from within. Bowen, meanwhile, is no longer listed on the team’s online roster.
Prior to the release of the FBI’s allegations on September 26, 2017, the Cardinals were considered nearly universally as a Final Four contender and arguably the top team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but the ensuing fallout has left them in a bit of basketball purgatory.
If Louisville ultimately finds success this season, it wouldn’t be the first time that an up-and-comer has excelled with a talented roster to fill the shoes of a well-regarded head coach. Mike White at Florida, Steve Prohm at Iowa State and Tim Jankovich at SMU all stick out in recent memory.
Certainly, Louisville faces drastically different circumstances and Padgett’s age will naturally raise questions to some, but it may not necessarily be the Herculean task that many have made it out to be given the depth on the Cardinals’ roster. Perhaps the best allegory, at least from the perspective of an unexpected change, is what Greg Gard did with Wisconsin two seasons ago after Bo Ryan’s mid-season retirement. Consider this ranking a belief in what Louisville has the potential to be because of the players remaining on its roster.
As it has with most of the Cardinals’ best teams in recent seasons, everything will start on the defensive end for the 2017-18 squad. Louisville’s odd mix of man-to-man and zone defense punctuated by lengthy players at nearly every position has perennially proven problematic for opposing offenses.
This season, the duo of Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud should form one of the most imposing frontcourts in the country. Last season, over approximately 450 possessions, opponents scored just 0.850 points per possession when Spalding and Mahmoud made up the Cardinals’ frontcourt, per Hoop Lens. Most notably, those opponents managed to shoot a meager 41.3 percent on 2-pointers during that time, a product of both Spalding and Mahmoud’s penchant for blocking shots. Mahmoud, the 7-foot senior, is the star of the show here, though. His 12.6 percent block rate ranked fourth nationally last season, and he also has the added ability to get out on the perimeter and slide with opposing guards for a few steps to cut off penetration.
While the bigs will anchor Louisville’s stout defense, it’ll be the perimeter players who put the points on the board with the primary question centering around how the 13.1 field goal attempts per game that Donovan Mitchell got up will be distributed. The most direct replacement for Mitchell now that Bowen is presumed gone will be sophomore V.J. King.
The 6-foot-6 former McDonald’s All-American averaged 16.4 points per 40 minutes on a 55.0 true shooting percentage last season. King is a high-level outside shooter — ranking in the 90th percentile nationally on catch-and-shoots last season, per Synergy — who should help the Cardinals space the floor offensively, but he’s far from a like-for-like replacement for Mitchell largely because he’s yet to show much of an ability to create offense for himself or his teammates against college competition.
The same can be said of King’s partner on the wing, Deng Adel. At 6-foot-7, he’s a legitimate 3-and-D NBA prospect, but he’s been a slightly below average shooter in two seasons with Louisville. Adel is at his best in catch-and-shoot situations on the perimeter as his creation numbers to this point have largely been abysmal. If the Cardinals have an obvious weakness, it’s the questions surrounding who will be the secondary creator on the offensive end.
The primary creation load will fall hardest on Quentin Snider, a 6-foot-2 point guard who averaged an inefficient 12.4 points per game as a junior. Snider’s at his best darting off of ball screens. He’s comfortable shooting off the dribble, both in the mid-range and beyond the 3-point line. Last season, he ranked in the 80th percentile nationally as an off the bounce jump shooter, per Synergy. Snider’s struggles largely come around the basket where he averaged just 0.830 points per possession (12th percentile) as a junior. If the senior is going to become the Cardinals’ definitive go-to scoring option in the absence of Mitchell, he’ll need to either be more proficient at the rim or more active getting to the foul line in 2017-18.
Louisville’s bench, meanwhile, will largely be shaped by its youth. There’s 6-foot sophomore Ryan McMahon, a sharpshooting youngster who can provide a backcourt boost, and UNC-Asheville transfer Dwayne Sutton who should see time as a rotation piece on the wing. The rest of the rotation will be filled out by top 100 freshmen, including Malik Williams, Darius Perry and Jordan Nwora.
The Cardinals’ roster has a mix of experience, youth and depth that in most seasons would have the majority of the country talking about them as the Final Four candidate they are. This season, though, is a bit different. With the FBI cloud looming over their head, writing them off with a chance to write the redemption arc later is too easy to do. It’s also the wrong thing to do. Louisville may be without its 5-star freshman and without its Hall of Fame head coach, but those left standing are positioned to surprise plenty of people.