CRAWFORD | Back from international play, Louisville big men sens - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Back from international play, Louisville big men sense new tone on team

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Mangok Mathiang checks out Chinanu Onuaku's gold medal from the U19 World Championships. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Mangok Mathiang checks out Chinanu Onuaku's gold medal from the U19 World Championships. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — When Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell cleaned out their lockers for the last time, the University of Louisville said goodbye to its final links to the 2013 NCAA Championship team.

This summer, it has been saying hello to some new faces, and a new feeling.

It’s inescapable. The last of the veterans are gone, and with them some of the old way of doing things. Not that there was anything wrong with the old way. They went to Final Fours and won a national title. Whatever they did and however they did it worked — and in a big way.

The scowl of Harrell, which ruled over last season with a ferocious force, has given way to some kinder, gentler guys. You can hear the difference in morning workouts.

“Everybody is more happy and joyful,” sophomore-to-be Chinanu Onuaku said. “In the morning they play music a lot and try to make it a feel-good time.”

Of course, there’s a big difference between feeling good and winning. But feeling good does play a part. That’s why the international experience Onuaku gained with the USA Under 19 World Championship team in Greece, and that junior Mangok Mathiang got with Australia in the World University Games in South Korea, could be important to the new-look Cardinals.

Onuaku started six out of seven games in Greece, averaged 4.6 points and five rebounds per game, shot 65 percent from the field, collected 10 steals and blocked a team-best 12 shots. He had six points, eight rebounds and four blocks in the championship game — a game the U.S. might well have not won without him.

It marked the first time since 1983 the U.S. won back-to-back gold medals in the event. In 2013, Harrell played for the American champions.

Onuaku felt so proud of his gold medal that he said he wore it everywhere for a week.

“I feel like I won the Olympics or something for my age,” he said. “. . . Just to go out and make the team was a big accomplishment for me. Then to contribute to the gold medal I think showed people that I’m serious. I learned that if I put my mind to something, I can do it.”

Mathiang felt something similar when he got the green and gold uniform of Australia.

“When we first got our uniforms, I was just wearing mine around the hotel,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that I was on the squad and all that. I enjoyed every bit of it.”

He led the entire 23-team World University Games field in rebounding at 10.3 per game. He started all eight games for Australia, averaging 13.5 points and shooting 56.1 percent from the field (fourth-best in the tournament). He had 17 rebounds in Australia’s final game, against Korea. He scored 23 points against Chinese Taipei.

Obviously, international rules, which allow players to take the ball off the rim or dunk a ball while it’s still on the rim, were to Mathiang’s liking. But it was just the kind of shot of confidence the Cardinal big man needed.

U of L coach Rick Pitino named Mathiang a captain after last season, hoping to put a serious edge to his offseason preparation. The native of the Sudan, who grew up on Australia before moving the U.S., has thought a lot about leadership, and about what happened with the team last season.

“I’ve been around the best leaders Louisville ever had,” he said in an interview at U of L on Wednesday. “We had Peyton (Siva), Russ (Smith), Luke (Hancock), Gorgui (Dieng), Trez, Wayne (Blackshear) and the list goes on. Just learning and being part of those teams has helped me pick up different ways to lead.”

To a large degree, the program has been under Harrell’s leadership the past two years, and that leadership was successful but stern.

“Be hard on everybody,” Mathiang said. “I work hard, so I expect you to do the same.”

But everyone is different, Mathiang said. And he’s hoping to show his own style.

Pitino has already expressed his pleasure at the way Cleveland State transfer Trey Lewis has reached out to the young players.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an upperclassman like him reach out to young guys,” Pitino said recently in a radio interview with 93.9 The Ville radio. “He’s as good a leader as I’ve seen in some time.”

The Cardinals will get a world of experience when they head to Puerto Rico for a week in August. One of the reasons Pitino is working with the Puerto Rican team is that he knows this U of L team desperately needs time together, given the difficult schedule it will face.

Mathiang said what happened to the Cardinals late last season was a revelation to him. It began, basically, with Minnesota coach Richard Pitino sharing an outsider’s opinion with the team on the eve of the NCAA Tournament. He said they looked like a group that didn’t like each other, that didn’t enjoy playing the game, that didn’t distribute the ball, that didn’t play for each other. After that, the team began to come together a bit.

“Last year we went through a lot of ups and downs,” Mathiang said. “Towards the end, not a lot of people thought we were going to make the noise we did. What we did was come together, not just as a team but we all sat down with coaches and said it’s now or never and we did a great job. And now we want to do that this season as early as we can and keep moving.”

Regardless, Onuaku said, the lesson that he hopes to share will be to keep playing through whatever comes, even if there are hard times. He said that’s one of the lessons he takes away from his summer of international competition.

“You’ve just got to play through everything,” Onuaku said. “If you get fouled and they don’t call it, you’ve got to keep playing. If your teammate makes a bad play, you can’t scream at him, you’ve got to just go talk to him and tell him move on to the next play.  . . . Coach wants everybody to work hard, but especially me, because he sees something in me that even I don’t see.”

And he’s hoping to see a big difference in these two big men once practice begins for the Puerto Rican trip next month.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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