Breaking Down Louisville's Options For Their Final Scholarship

The Cardinals have one more scholarship available for their 2021-22 roster. So how should they use it?
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(Photo of Louisville Players: Sam Upshaw Jr. - Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Since the end of the 2020-21 season, there have been numerous moving pieces for the Louisville men's basketball program. Several players are departing the program thanks to the transfer portal or upcoming NBA Draft, but on the other hand, many are joining from high school or other collegiate programs.

But the dust is almost completely settled. As of mid-April, the Cardinals are at 12 scholarship players for the 2021-22 season. With their scholarship reduction penalty having been served following the end of this past season, that means Louisville is now back up to a 13-man scholarship roster limit, and can bring in one additional player for next season.

Related: Louisville Men's Basketball 2021-22 Roster Outlook 4.0

Now the question begs, how should Louisville use this final scholarship spot? What position should they be recruiting? While the answer to both questions hinges a lot on if Carlik Jones decides to return to the Cards, at face value, the program has three likely courses of action. We'll take a look and break down all three below.

Add a Guard

The backcourt has seen the most shakeup on the roster this offseason. Josh Nickelberry transferred out, Charles Minlend elected not to return, and David Johnson declared for the NBA Draft. Conversely, Jarrod West and Noah Locke transferred from other programs, and El Ellis is coming in from the JUCO level.

If Carlik Jones - who also declared for the draft but left the door open for a return - chooses to stay in the draft process, Louisville will be left with a core of West, Locke and Ellis to be their backcourt. You can also throw Dre Davis into this mix as well, but he will also spend time out on the wing due to his versatility.

One goal that head coach Chris Mack wants to accomplish for next season is to increase the tempo. While all pieces of the roster are inevitably required for this, it starts with the backcourt and their ability to push the floor.

As we saw this past year, it's hard to play at a higher rate when your starting guards are eating up most of the minutes for the backcourt. Due to injuries to both Minlend and Nickelberry, and at times - to be quite frank - a talent drop-off, this left Jones and Johnson playing close to or at 40 minutes nearly every single night.

The reason Louisville didn't play fast this past year, is because they couldn't due to simple exhaustion from the backcourt. Not only that, both Jones and Johnson had season second half slides, perhaps due to overuse. This issue shouldn't be as prevalent next season, and should be close to nonexistent should Carlik Jones opt to come back.

However, in order to be able to play fast next year, Louisville needs quality depth in the backcourt. The Cardinals are in a good spot barring an injury to their core three, but adding another guard - ideally a solid backup point guard - would not only enable them to play fast, but also makes a long term injury to any backcourt player not seem like a death sentence.

Add a Center

Unless Jones decides to come back, arguably the biggest offseason storyline for Louisville has been when senior forward/center Malik Williams opted to return for a fifth year with the Cardinals. Williams missed the majority of the 2020-21 season due to another foot injury.

Due to Williams' absence throughout the majority of the year, Louisville did not get maximum efficiency out of the center position. Jae'Lyn Withers was forced to slide over to that spot out of his natural position of power forward, and while he was named to the All-ACC Freshman team, he still is better suited playing at the four.

Even if Williams plays next season with a completely clean bill of health, much like with the backcourt, talent drop-off is another concern. Unless Gabe Wiznitzer has an offseason like Withers had last year, you can't really count on him to play major minutes just yet. With Roosevelt Wheeler, you're not even sure what you're getting yet following his recovery from an Achilles injury.

The reason it's such a big concern is because someone is going to have to step up - whether it's Wiznitzer, Wheeler, or another potential big man. During the 2019-20 season, Williams averaged just 18.7 minutes per game - roughly half of what Jones averaged. Louisville can't afford to have play at the center position that doesn't live up to their standard for over twenty minutes per game.

Leave it Unused

Believe it or not, there's a very good possibility that Louisville may not fill the final scholarship at all. Although, it will most likely not be their own choice to.

Until Jones makes a concrete decision regarding his future, the program doesn't know which roster would need requires addressing first. At least, from the outside looking in this appears to be the case.

Additionally, it could be a while before Louisville finally knows who they need to be recruiting. The deadline for Jones to pull his name from draft consideration is not until July 19 at 5:00 p.m. EST - or roughly three months away.

Even when they do know, it will probably be at a time where most of the quality talent still remaining in the transfer portal or in the high schools ranks has already found their home. And because of the talent already on hand, playing time isn't necessarily a guarantee to an additional player.

Plus, in all honesty, very few teams play all 13 guys on their roster, unless the wheels completely fall off from an injury perspective. Anyone they bring in at this point would most likely be a luxury and not a necessity.

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