CRAWFORD | After Virginia, Pitino looks ahead to next season's t - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | After Virginia, Pitino looks ahead to next season's team

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Louisville's Donovan Mitchell. (AP photo) Louisville's Donovan Mitchell. (AP photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — With the season having just ended minutes before, University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino was already looking ahead.

He sat down with Louisville play-by-play man Paul Rogers on his Learfield Sports postgame radio show to talk about the team’s 24-point season-ending loss at Virginia, but spent just as much time looking ahead for his young team.

In some ways, it was impossible to sustain momentum at the end of this season. His players, particularly graduate transfers Trey Lewis and Damion Lee, were emotionally spent by the time it was over. Lewis and Lee shot a combined 22-80 (27.5 percent) over the Cardinals’ final four games. Still, the Cardinals wound up fourth in the ACC (after being picked to finish seventh) and finished the regular season ranked in the Top 10 of Ken Pomeroy's computer index and will likely be in the Top 20 in the RPI and Associated Press polls.

“Damion and Trey, last 4-5 games, their play wasn’t real good because I think they saw the end of the tunnel and got very emotional about it,” Pitino told Rogers after Saturday’s game. “Damion was very emotional in the locker room. They didn’t play great, but they were great, the whole season. . . . They were almost a blueprint for how to act like a professional.”

Later, Pitino said, “It was a true treasure to coach them, and they taught our guys how to act like professionals, how to look people in the eyes and say hello and thank you, and how to carry themselves. We will be a better team going forward for them being here.“

To be sure, Pitino expects this to be a better team next season.

The first, and biggest, question to be resolved in terms of personnel is whether center Chinanu Onuaku will return for his junior season. He’ll take advantage of the new NCAA rule that will allow him to go through the NBA Draft combine and get input from teams, including working out for one team. After that, he’ll have a decision to make.

Onuaku shot the third-highest field goal percentage in Louisville history, 62 percent from the field, and his free-throw shooting improved significantly after his transition to an underhand shooting motion. Scouts like him. He averaged nearly 10 rebounds per game in conference play, and he is a skilled passer.

But Onuaku struggled with fouls, particularly in setting screens. And Pitino says his conditioning still needs to improve.

“I told him, ‘Son, 90 percent of your fouls this year were bad fouls —  90 percent. You didn’t have a lot of good fouls, where you’re going to block a shot. It’s either screening or reaching,’” Pitino told Rogers. “He took himself out of the game. We had a nice trap on the baseline and he just hits a guy. He’s only a sophomore, too. He’s 19 years old, so he’s young as well.”

Onuaku watched Montrezl Harrell come back for his junior season and probably move backward in the draft. For that reason, his return seems a shaky proposition at best. But Pitino says his team will be fine either way.

“He’s going to try out, get to the combine and try it out,” Pitino said. “With or without him, this is going to be an outstanding group of guys. Trey and Damion taught them how to act, how to practice. They’re going to be very, very good next year, not a doubt in my mind, with or without him.”

Pitino likes the offensive potential of this group, particularly guard Donovan Mitchell and forwards Deng Adel and Ray Spalding. He thinks point guard Quentin Snider could be the best returning offensive player on the team, after shooting 40.4 percent from three-point range this past season — the first Louisville player to top the 40 percent mark since Kyle Kuric in 2010-11.

But on defense, he sees much work to do.

“Donovan, just a bad defensive player,” Pitino told Rogers. “Quentin Snider is a bad defensive player. Ray Spalding is a reacher. They just all have to get better defensively. They’re going to be great offensive basketball players, but Quentin has got to dig in and guard his man, because on offense he’s brilliant. Donovan is a great athlete. He’s got to guard some people now. He played the whole season at 210 pounds, and at 6-1 you can’t play that. If we get him down to 195, which for his size is still pretty strong, he’ll become much quicker. But Q has to work on that aspect of his game. he’s going to have to play a lot of one-on-one, dig in and contain, but I know he’ll do it, because he’s a basketball junkie.”

On the front line, Pitino will return Spalding, Anas Mahmoud, Matz Stockman and Mangok Mathiang, who missed most of this season with an injury but still wound up fourth on the team in blocked shots. Mathiang is eligible to petition the NCAA for a second additional season, but indicated to me a couple of weeks ago that he's not inclined to do that, given his age. "I've been in college eight years," he joked. "That's probably enough."

“Anas is going to get a lot better,” Pitino said. “You’ve got Mangok coming back, obviously. Matz got good experience. He’s going to be fine. He’s going to be a good basketball player.”

The Cards will bring in a McDonald’s All-American, V.J. King, a 6-6 small forward who had a fantastic senior high school season, and graduate transfer Tony Hicks, a 6-2 combo guard from Penn. Ryan McMahon, a three-point shooting specialist, redshirted this season and has been working on his point guard skills.

Jaylen Johnson, who became a regular-starter at power forward this season, also returns, as does David Levitch, who should see even more playing time.

“We’ve got some really talented freshmen who are going to get better,” Pitino told Rogers. “We had a brilliant season. As good a season as we could have asked for, with so much inexperience.”

Later, speaking with a group of reporters, Pitino said, “These guys are great people, and with experience and hard work, they’ve got a chance to be a great basketball team.”

Copyright 2016 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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