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Looking Ahead: Mitchell’s return could be a key for Cards as plenty of veterans, top recruits raise hopes

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE — Donovan Mitchell sat in front of his locker in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis Sunday afternoon patiently answering questions while trying to process the fact that Louisville’s college basketball season had ended three games short of its NCAA Final Four goal.

“This hurts. This sucks,” Mitchell said. “We lost. I don’t like ending on a loss.”

Reminded that every team in the country except one — the national champion — ends its season with a defeat, the sophomore guard managed a smile.

“Well, it looks like we’ve got to win it all next time then,” he said.

Donovan Mitchell is a potential first round NBA draft pick if he decides to leave Louisville this year (UofL Athletics Photo)

It also looks like the Cardinals will have a realistic chance to do just that. Mitchell wasn’t engaging in wishful or delusional thinking with that comment. UofL returns virtually its entire roster for the 2017-18 season and adds a stellar recruiting class, the combination of which will undoubtedly have the Cards ranked in the Top-5, maybe even No. 1, in the preseason polls.

Of course, that’s assuming that the Louisville star returns for his junior season instead of entering the NBA draft.

After his outstanding season that saw him burst onto the ACC scene as one of its most talented all-around performers and earn league first-team honors, the 6-3 Mitchell is considered a potential first-round draft choice.

Although he talked Sunday as if he planned on returning — “I can’t wait for next year” — he wasn’t ready to discuss a possible jump to the pros yet, saying he wants to talk to his family and coach Rick Pitino.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” Mitchell said. “I don’t want to think about it, especially after this. I’m not really focused on that at all. I don’t know how to describe this feeling. I’ll probably sit in my room and not talk to anybody for a few days.”

Pitino said during a radio interview Monday afternoon on 93.9 The Ville that Mitchell should work out for NBA teams this spring, but only enter the draft if projections are for him to be selected in the teens.

Mitchell has until April 23 to decide whether or not to test the draft situation. Then if he chooses to declare for the draft but doesn’t hire an agent, he has until May 24 to withdraw from the pool and remain eligible.

Pitino said he met with each individual player Monday to talk about what they need to work on for next season and, in Mitchell’s case, his future. He said he told Mitchell, “If you want to go out there and work out for pro teams, I’d like to see you do it because it’ll make you better. It can only make you a better basketball player.”

Pitino added that he isn’t going to speculate about whether Mitchell will return or not, citing the case of former center Chinanu Onuaku, who surprised him by going pro last year after his sophomore season. Onuaku was drafted in the second round, 37th overall, by the Houston Rockets but has played little.

“Never say never with any of this,” Pitino says. “We thought Onuaku would come back. I think Mitchell will go try out. And if he can move into the post-lottery area, anywhere from 13-18, 13-20, it’s something we’ll talk about, but if it’s not there he’ll come back. This is such a strong draft with point guards. They keep referring to Donovan as a shooting guard. He’s not, he’s a point guard. Matter of fact, we played our best basketball when he was at the point and he played his best.”

Pitino was referring to the six-game stretch where regular point guard Quentin Snider was sidelined with a hip injury and the Cards’ offensive efficiency soared.

Mitchell was at his best in ACC play, averaging 18.1 points and 4.2 rebounds, with 52 assists and 38 steals. He also shot 44.2 percent overall and 40 percent on three-pointers. For the season, he averaged 15.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game. He shot 35.4 percent from long range, but only 40 percent overall.

“Donovan had a great 18-game conference season,” Pitino says.

Another Cardinal who might consider testing his draft status is 6-7 sophomore wing Deng Adel, Mitchell’s roommate, but he isn’t considered as good a prospect as Mitchell right now and talked as if he will be back.

“It hurts to lose in the second round,” Adel said. “I’ve got to go back in the lab, work on my game, work with my teammates. We definitely have a lot of talent on this team, and we’ve got a lot of great freshmen coming in, so we’ve just got to work on listening to Coach and on fundamentals. It’s a good thing we got this experience and this feeling. It will be motivation because we don’t want to get the same feeling next year.”

Adel came on strong near the end of the season, averaging 16.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists in the last six games while shooting 53.8 percent, including 41 percent from beyond the arc. On the season he averaged 12.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg and shot 41.8 percent (34.1 on threes).

If Adel and Mitchell both return, UofL will have four starters and seven of its top eight players back from the team that finished 25-9 against one of the nation’s toughest schedules and was in contention for the ACC regular-season title until the final week.
The only major loss is 6-10 starting center Mangok Mathiang, the team’s leading rebounder at 6.1 per game. He also averaged 7.7 ppg and was a defensive force in the paint with 37 blocks.

“Next year looks great,” junior forward Jaylen Johnson says. “This was a learning experience because the majority of us didn’t have any tournament experience. Now that we got our feet wet, we’re going to be ready to jump back in strong.”

Returning in the backcourt are Snider, a junior who averaged 12.4 points and 4.1 assists, and freshman guard Ryan McMahon. On the wing, UofL will have 6-6 sophomore-to-be V.J. King and 6-5 Dwane Sutton, a transfer from UNC Ashville who sat out this season after averaging 12 points and 7.7 rebounds as a freshman at his former school.

The Cards are well-stocked with veterans at center and power forward with 7-0 Anas Mahmoud, 6-10 Ray Spalding, 7-0 Matz Stockman and the 6-9 Johnson, although Pitino has hinted he may redshirt Stockman.

The incoming recruiting class, which is ranked among the top 10 in the nation, includes three frontcourt players in 6-11 Malik Williams, 6-8 Lance Thomas and 6-7 Jordan Nwora. The other newcomer will be 6-2 guard Darius Perry. Pitino says he expects Williams and Nwora to be “major players” next season.

“I would venture to say we’re probably going to be ranked preseason 1-5 next year, but you never know with any team,” Pitino says. “There’s just no end to the madness you’re going to see moving forward in the NCAA Tournament because of the parity with players going pro early.

“Now I do believe this year that the learning experience we had to get through, the schedule we played, will make this team better. But they’re going to have to grow up mentally and pay attention much better to the little things in the game to reach their potential. I think they will.”

ACC CRUMBLES–After praise throughout the season as the toughest conference in college basketball, the ACC laid a huge egg in the tournament. Only one of the nine ACC teams in the field — No. 1 seed North Carolina — advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. By contrast, the SEC and Big Ten, which were ridiculed as being weak this season, each has three clubs still alive, same as the Pac-12.

Furthermore, No. 2 Louisville (vs. No. 7 Michigan), No. 2 Duke (vs. No. 7 South Carolina), No. 3 Florida State (vs. No. 11 Xavier) and No. 8 Miami (vs. No. 9 Michigan State) all lost to higher seeded teams. No. 4 Virginia, Miami and FSU all suffered embarrassingly lopsided defeats. And the Tar Heels barely escaped an upset against No. 8 Arkansas.

“There’s no validity to anything anybody says anymore,” Pitino said. “When you get into the tournament, except for a 16 seed and possibly a 15 seed, a 14 seed on can win. It’s just crazy.”

The ACC is crumbling before our eyes

A week after it placed nine teams in the NCAA tournament, had a 10th barely left out and completed a season as what some believed to be the best conference ever, the ACC is sending one team to the Sweet 16. One (1). Let’s review the carnage:

It began on Tuesday with Wake Forestís loss in the First Four. Virginia Tech and Miami lost in first-round games on Thursday and Friday. Notre Dame, Virginia and Florida State lost to West Virginia, Florida and Xavier, respectively, on Saturday. Louisville fell to a surging Michigan team on Sunday afternoon. Duke pushed the conference’s collapse to the brink on Sunday night.

In fact, North Carolina nearly turned the one Sweet 16 team into a zero; it struggled mightily with Arkansas earlier Sunday evening, but escaped into the second weekend as the conference’s sole representative.

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