Key Departures: Donovan Mitchell, Mangok Mathiang, Jaylen Johnson, David Levitch, Tony Hicks
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Quentin Snider (Sr.)
SG: V.J. King (So.)
SF: Deng Adel (Jr.)
PF: Ray Spalding (Jr.)
C: Anas Mahmoud (Sr.)
Key Reserve Players:
SG/SF: Brian Bowen II (Fr.), PF: Malik Williams (Fr.), PG: Darius Perry (Fr.), PF: Jordan Nwora (Fr.), SG: Ryan McMahon (RS So.), SG/SF: Dwayne Sutton (RS So.), PF: Lance Thomas (Fr.), SG: Jay Henderson (RS Jr.)
Donovan Mitchell is definitely a big loss for the Cardinals, but it was his time to head off to the NBA. Much like Luke Kennard of Duke, Mitchell made tremendous improvements from his freshman year to his sophomore year. He more than doubled his scoring, he improved his 3-point shooting, and he continued to wreak havoc on the defensive end, averaging 2.1 steals per game. V.J. King is the player that I think will benefit the most from the departure of Mitchell. The former McDonald’s All-American and five-star recruit didn’t play too much during his freshman season, but I expect him to be a huge part of the rotation this year. I expect that his minutes per game (13.5) and points per game (5.5) will both go up significantly. He can get all the way to the basket, and can shoot it as well.
The hometown kid Quentin Snider will be the leader of this team. Now a senior, Snider has loads of experience of playing in Pitino’s offense, and I think he will be one of the best point guards in the nation. I always thought that he was a bit underrated. He isn’t going to wow you with athleticism or crazy scoring every night, but he can hit big shots when needed, and makes smart plays for his teammates. Snider and King will be joined by Deng Adel, who will play at small forward. Deng Adel is one of my favorite players, and I think that he is a star just waiting to happen. Adel is a sneaky good athlete, and even had one of the best dunks in college basketball last year against Michigan in the NCAA tournament. He can shoot it from outside as well. He tested the NBA waters, but decided to come back for his junior year. Adel and King will be key defensive perimeter pieces.
If you want to talk about length and wingspan, the Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud combination fits those two words perfectly. Opposing players are going to have an extremely difficult time finishing in the paint with those two trees protecting the basket. I can’t think of a better rim protecting duo in the nation. The other nice part is that although Pitino loses Mathiang and Johnson, he can slide the experienced Spalding and Mahmoud right into the starting lineup. Both guys have experience starting, so they will fit perfectly together.
Brian Bowen was the huge recruiting shocker for me. At first, I expected him to choose either Arizona or Michigan State, but then other teams came into the picture as well. DePaul, Creighton, and late pushes by both Oregon and Texas made it almost impossible to predict where the 13th ranked player in the 2017 Class would land. Then the Cardinals appeared, and it was almost a giveaway when Bowen started taking Summer courses in Louisville. Even without Bowen, I would have put the Cardinals in my top 10 without hesitation. Bowen adds shooting and scoring on the wing. With King and Adel already in the starting lineup, I am forced to have him coming off the bench, even though he would probably start on most other college teams. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the starting lineup at some point during the season, especially if he shines as a freshman. Malik Williams, another five-star recruit, adds length off the bench as a big. I expect him to play alongside fellow freshman, Jordan Nwora. These guys will add depth behind Spalding and Mahmoud. Darius Perry will come in and be able to play back up point guard minutes to Snider, and will give him a rest when needed.
Pitino also has guys like Ryan McMahon, Dwayne Sutton, Lance Thomas, and Jay Henderson. McMahon is a fan favorite, and the crowd goes wild when he starts getting hot from deep. I expect him to see some good minutes here and there. Sutton, the transfer from UNC Asheville (where Dylan Smith also transferred from), has apparently had a very impressive Summer, and I expect Pitino to play him on the wing with Bowen off the bench. Lance Thomas is a four-star power forward coming in, who again adds insurance in the frontcourt as a big. He has good length, but probably will have to wait his turn when it comes to playing huge minutes off the bench. Jay Henderson has only played 58 minutes in two seasons for the Cardinals, but could see some time as a backup wing player.
The Cardinals will be right there with Duke at the top of the ACC this year. They have a lot of experience on this team, and also have talented recruits coming in. What’s nice about this team is that the freshmen don’t have too much pressure to come in and contribute right away. They can come off the bench and learn from the experienced veterans. They will be one of the best (if not the best) defensive teams in the nation. I have them at number seven in my preseason rankings.