By Noah Allison–
This year, Louisville is led on offense by fifth year senior transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. Averaging 17.3 points and 13.6 points per game respectively, they’ve changed what this season could have been and are integral components of Louisville’s 13-3 record.
At the end of last year nobody knew Lee and Lewis would be Louisville Cardinals. Of this year’s original cast, no player has proved more important than sophomore center Chinanu Onuaku.
The defensive anchor has stepped up and is Louisville’s leader in rebounds with 139 on the season and blocked shots with 32 on the season. On top of his defensive presence, Onuaku has also provided dependable offense from the center position. Averaging 9.8 points per game Onuaku is Louisville’s fourth leading scorer on the season, compared to last year when Onuaku averaged just 3 points per game.
Having played 35 games as a freshman, Onuaku came into the season one of the most veteran players on the team despite being an underclassman. When red-shirt junior and team captain Mangok Mathiang broke his foot against Western Kentucky Onuaku was thrust into a more urgent leadership role. With Mathiang out, arguably nobody on the floor is more knowledgeable of Pitino’s complex defensive system, and Onuaku isn’t shy about the necessity of bringing everybody along.
“I feel so (of being more of a leader). With Mangok out I am more of the defensive anchor. I’ve got to talk on defense and help out on offense too,” Onuaku said.
Onuaku is straight to the point when giving advice. When he’s on the floor you’ll see him screaming and stomping his feet to get someone back into the right position on defense.
A few weeks ago against Kentucky, Louisville was up by four points late in the first half then let UK go on a large run heading into halftime. Onuaku had picked up two fouls and was on the bench. When asked what went wrong at the end of the half he responded as such.
“I was out and nobody on the court was talking. I’m just trying to tell them what to do and see if I can’t get them to hear me.”
Onuaku played all 20 minutes of the second half and his defensive leadership played a large role in Louisville’s near comeback from 16-points down. Early into the ACC season, the young squad, including the freshman, sophomores and first year transfers are starting to catch up on Pitino’s defense.
“We work on it everyday, but you know we have freshman that don’t know what they’re doing and we’ve got the fifth year seniors that are new to the system and we just have to get them acclimated,” Onuaku said. “We have to stay focused throughout the whole practice and take no plays off. We have to pay attention to what the coaches say.”
His teammates recognize the impact Onuaku is having on this season.
“He just stepped up when he had to and we’re all proud of the way he’s been working his butt off,” freshman guard Donovan Mitchell said. “It’s more urgent when he yells at you, you don’t want to make that mistake and having him as the voice in the back, it helps.”
With Mathiang out, Onuaku has also had to improve his ability to stay in the game.
“I just have to be smart. I can’t pick up early fouls. I have to play hard and play smart throughout the whole game. I have to keep pushing,” Onuaku said.
As of now Onukau is averaging 22.5 minutes per game on the season. Early in the year foul trouble was taking him out of games early. But in the first two ACC games of the season Onuaku has played 37 and 32 minutes of the 40-minute games. His ability to foul less and stay in the game will be key for Louisville’s success throughout the ACC season.
The Cardinals fell to Clemson in Greenville, S.C. on Sunday 66-62.
Onuaku registered a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds, but he was once again plagued with foul trouble.
Onuaku fouled out in just 20 minutes of play. But, while he was on the floor, he made his presence felt on both ends.
He shot seven of eight from the field and blocked three shots.
When he is on the floor, Louisville is a much better team, but keeping him on the floor is the most difficult part as Louisville heads into a difficult stretch in the ACC.
Photo by Wade Morgen / The Louisville Cardinal