• Louisville lost its best player from last season, guard Donovan Mitchell. How will the Cardinals account for his departure to the NBA?
By Brian Hamilton
July 05, 2017

The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 3, Louisville.

1. Is this still a national title contender without Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Johnson?

You’d certainly feel a lot better about Louisville’s chances with that duo in the fold, but both decided to jump to the professional ranks this off-season. Mitchell’s decision is more impactful. He was one of the best two-way players in college basketball as a sophomore, and his 15.6 points per game, 16.2 shots per 40 minutes and 94.0 defensive rating all were team-high numbers for Louisville. With Mitchell, the Cardinals would have had an All-America caliber performer and a go-to outlet on board. Without him, there’s a lot of production to account for.

Johnson’s departure leaves a hole, too, though there’s a discernible gap between him and Mitchell. The good news? Louisville gets Deng Adel back for another season, and five-star wing Brian Bowen should be able to help out right away. The Cardinals lost a key piece (Mitchell) at the deadline, but it could have been worse.

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(2) Will a Rick Pitino team shoot the three better next winter?

A mere 152 college basketball teams were more proficient from long range than Louisville was in 2016-17. That’s a fairly stunning fact to associate with a Pitino team, although 35.5% efficiency from beyond the arc is not in itself prohibitive of great achievement. The 153rd-ranked Cardinals can look one figurative spot behind them in the three-point shooting rankings and see evidence of that: There, at No. 154, sit the national champion North Carolina Tar Heels.

And the Cardinals were the 22nd most efficient offense in the country last year, per kenpom.com. They weren’t a mess just because they were off the mark from distance. But imagine that defense combined with a reliable long-range offense and the pressure that applies to opposition at both ends of the floor. That’s why Bowen’s signing is such a big deal: He can give Louisville the sort of long-range threat it needs to space the floor against top ACC competition.

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(3) Who are the breakout performer candidates?

Clearly, Louisville expects immediate returns from Brian Bowen, the nation’s consensus No. 15 recruit, and Malik Williams (24). Beyond that, there are some enticing options to fill the void.

Adel has had stretches of inspired play and scored in double figures in 12 of the last 15 games of 2016-17; that could augur an ascent into All-conference territory for the 6’7” junior-to-be. There’s also V.J. King, whose 444 minutes ranked just eighth among Cardinals players last year. The 6’6” freshman was a 16.4-point scorer per 40 minutes, which was second only to Mitchell among players who appeared in 30 or more games.