By Sam Draut–
With a self-imposed postseason ban announced on Feb. 5, the University of Louisville men’s basketball team ended its 2015-16 season with a 68-46 loss to Virginia Saturday. Heading into the offseason, five questions surround the team that finished 23-8 overall and 12-6 in the ACC.
Will Rick Pitino return?
The 15-year Louisville head coach jokingly said he planned to replace Steve Kerr as the Golden State Warriors head coach after the loss to Virginia. All jokes aside, there is still some air of doubt if Pitino will return to Louisville next season. Pitino has 10 years and over $50 million left on his contract, but the past six months have been particularly difficult because of the allegations stemming from Katina Powell’s book “Breaking Cardinal Rules,” the ongoing investigation following the allegations and the university’s decision on a self-imposed postseason ban.
Despite sometimes facing ire from the U of L Board of Trustees and inconsistent support from U of L President James Ramsey, it seems Pitino’s decision to return is becoming more and more based around his own assessment. One person who has continued to back Pitino throughout the process is athletic director Tom Jurich.
Pitino said he would take time off, as he does after every season, to reevaluate himself and his coaching desires.
To note, the NCAA recruiting dead period is March 31-April 7, so Jurich would probably like Pitino to make a decision before then to allow him time to find a new head coach before the next recruiting period begins.
Is Chinanu Onuaku headed to the NBA?
The 6-foot-10 center took a huge stride from his freshman to sophomore year, and was, at times, one of the best low-post players in the ACC. He was named to the All-ACC Defensive team and averaged 9.9 points and 8.5 rebounds. While looking downright dominant sometimes, Onuaku ended the season with 11 double-doubles, but he also missed out on minutes because of foul trouble.
Early in the season, Pitino said he encouraged Onuaku to attend the NBA draft combine in May. New NCAA rules allow players to participate in the combine and workout with one NBA team before deciding.
Onuaku is projected as a second-round pick by various NBA draft websites. After the combine, Onuaku will have 10 days to decide to enter the NBA draft or return to U of L.
With a good portion of the roster returning, Louisville will begin the 2016-17 season ranked in the top-25, but if Onuaku returns for his junior year, Louisville could vault up into the preseason top-10.
Who will take the sophomore step?
Pitino has yet to have a one-and-done at Louisville, but he does have a reputation for developing players heading into their second year. As their roles expanded, players like Terry Rozier, Montrezl Harrell, Russ Smith and Earl Clark made a big jump from their freshman to sophomore year.
In 2015-16 season, three freshmen showed glimpses of promise. Donovan Mitchell was the most consistent contributor and had a few highlight-reel plays showing off his athleticism. The 6-foot-3 guard played the most minutes of any freshman and averaged 7.4 points per game.
Ray Spalding’s lanky 6-foot-10 frame displayed some versatility during the season, but he must add some weight to battle in the paint with ACC big men. He shared time at the power-forward position with Jaylen Johnson this season each averaging 17.5 minutes per game. Spalding was statistically better in nearly every category over Johnson, so the local product from Trinity High School could see a jump in minutes next season if he bulks up in the offseason.
After starting the first two games of the season, Deng Adel missed more than a month with a sprained knee. He didn’t seem comfortable until midway through conference play. He started the final five games of the season and had one of his best performances against Duke, scoring 12 points while holding the Blue Devil’s star forward Brandon Ingram to eight points and 10 turnovers. Similar to Spalding, Pitino wants Adel to add weight this offseason.
Can the graduate-transfer experiment work again?
Pitino couldn’t have asked for a better result in his graduate transfer experiment in the 2015-16 season. Damion Lee and Trey Lewis arrived on campus in May and instantly became leaders for a young roster.
In early January, Tony Hicks announced he would play his final collegiate season at Louisville. The 6-foot-2 guard led Penn in scoring from 2013-15, but decided to sit out for the 2015-16 season after a coaching change at Penn and a desire to pursue another opportunity in college basketball.
Hicks will graduate from Penn in May and then enroll at U of L, similar to what Lee and Lewis did a year ago.
Playing three seasons in the Ivy League, Hicks scored 1,060 points and led the Quakers in scoring in his final two seasons. In 2014-15, Hicks averaged 13.2 points, 3.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds while shooting 40.3-percent from the field. For his career, Hicks has shot 78-percent from the free-throw line and 34.7-percent from the 3-point line.
Who will be King?
Five-star V.J. King is the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with U of L since Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan in 2011. The 6-foot-7 wing is a dynamic athlete with the ability to contribute immediately.
After watching King play in February, Pitino was complimentary of the incoming freshman in a blog post. He said King was well coached and will improve as he grows stronger.
“VJ will add a selfless attitude and a tremendous eagerness to learn. He passes, handles, scores with drives and pull-ups well,” Pitino said. “He will be another piece to the puzzle and another awesome attitude added to an already fantastic group.”
Photo by Wade Morgen / The Louisville Cardinal