A few days after Louisville lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in March, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino met with the media to discuss the season and what was in store for 2014-15. Pitino had plenty to say.
Louisville had just blown a seven-point lead in the final five minutes to its hated in-state rival. A move to the Atlantic Coast Conference was on the horizon. Four seniors were departing in the offseason. An assistant coach was leaving to take a head coaching job at a smaller school. And a heralded, six-man recruiting class would arrive in the summer.
The most important topic, though, was the uncertainty over whether forward Montrezl Harrell would declare for the NBA draft. When asked about Harrell, Pitino said he though his team would be “very good with or without him,” but that it would be “much better with him, because we'll be older and more experienced.”
Pitino and the Cardinals will get to find out just how good they can be with Harrell, because he announced in mid-April that he would be returning for his junior season. He made major strides in 2013-14, averaging 14 points and 8.4 rebounds in 29.3 minutes per game, compared to 5.7, 3.6 and 16.2, respectively, as a freshman, while also while posting one of the top 40 effective field goal percentages in the country. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward was a first-team All-AAC selection and won the league’s most improved player award.
Harrell’s play last season boosted his draft stock to the point where he could have been selected in the first round. He chose to come back to improve his game, primarily his offensive repertoire, but also to play in the ACC and try to win the second national championship of his career. With Harrell back, the Cardinals will be expected to remain among the nation's elite.
That’s a nice luxury for Pitino, especially considering the other personnel losses he'll have to deal with. The three biggest departures (excluding forward Chane Behanan, who was dismissed in December) from last season’s 31-win team are guard Russ Smith -- a first-team All-America who finished first in Ken Pomeroy’s Player of the Year Standings for the second straight season -- and forwards Luke Hancock and Stephen Van Treese.
Still, Louisville will have ample talent in its backcourt. Senior Chris Jones started 27 games last season and sophomore Terry Rozier could blossom in an expanded role. Sophomore Anton Gill and incoming freshman Quentin Snider, one of the top point guards in the class of 2014, can provide help off the bench.
Wayne Blackshear is the likely starter at small forward. In March Pitino said of the former McDonald’s All-American, “The only player I've had in the past four years that hasn't had substantial improvement is Wayne Blackshear,” but two weeks ago, the head coach praised Blackshear as "the biggest surprise" among the returning players. Blackshear, who started 18 of the Cardinals' 37 games a year ago, could be pushed by freshman Shaqquan Aaron, the No. 30-ranked player in 2014, according to Rivals.
Mangok Mathiang, a 6-10 sophomore who has shown promise as a defender and shot blocker in limited minutes, is the leading contender to start at center. Sophomore Akoy Agau and freshmen Chinanu Onuaku and Jaylen Johnson will compete for reserve minutes in the frontcourt.
One of the biggest questions facing Pitino's squad is who will assume Smith's shot attempts from last season. As Luke Winn noted in his post-draft declaration Power Rankings, which pegged Louisville at No. 8, Smith led the Cardinals in field goal (481) and free throw (217) attempts and usage rate (31.1) last season. Who will the offense run through in 2014-15?
Harrell is the obvious answer, but Jones isn’t prone to passing up shots -- only Harrell averaged more attempts per game among returning players -- and Rozier (7.7 ppg in 18.9 minutes) could develop into one of the Cardinals’ top scorers. Or maybe Blackshear's progress will enable him to make the rarely observed junior-to-senior leap and command a bigger share of attempts and possessions. However it works out, Louisville’s offense will not lack for capable scorers. Shot allocation is a minor concern when compared with a Harrell-less frontcourt.
The Cardinals' first time through the ACC will be challenging but manageable. Two games against North Carolina and Virginia, a home matchup with Duke and a trip to Syracuse are the highlights of Louisville's 18-game conference schedule.
The Blue Devils, who bring in the top recruiting class in the country and return a group of experienced role players, are the early favorites to win the league. The Tar Heels return star guard Marcus Paige and have enough talent and depth to push Duke. And the Cavaliers lost two key players (Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell) but have back their other seven top players by minutes after winning the league's regular season and tournament crowns last season.
Titles are exactly what Harrell is used to playing for. As a freshman, he helped Louisville tie for first in the regular season Big East race and then win the conference tournament before playing a key role in their run to the national championship. As a sophomore, he again helped them tie for first in the regular season race and win a conference tournament title, this time in the AAC. Pulling off that double for the third straight year in a third different conference will be difficult, but with Harrell back, it's a real possibility.