LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Starting over has created an urgency that Louisville coach Rick Pitino hasn’t experienced in a few years.
The Cardinals return five starters from a team that finished 31-6 and reached the NCAA Midwest Region semifinals, but must replace the scoring and leadership voids left by guard Russ Smith and perimeter threat Luke Hancock.
“We want to rebuild in a month, not a season, so we’ve got to rebuild our culture as well as our fundamentals,” Pitino said. “We’re starting new.”
The Cardinals also enter new territory as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, where powerhouses such as Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse await.
All of which has added more importance to preseason practices and Sunday’s first Red-White scrimmage game that Pitino said was more exciting than expected for this point.
“We’re going to have to be ready,” Pitino said. “We have no choice or we’ll get beat opening game, no doubt in my mind.”
The Cardinals open Nov. 14 in Puerto Rico against NIT champion Minnesota, which is coached by Pitino’s son, Richard, a former Louisville assistant. Ohio State, Indiana and archrival Kentucky also are on the early season schedule.
Fortunately for Louisville, there’s a good starting point.
The Cardinals frontcourt features athletic junior Montrezl Harrell, senior captain Wayne Blackshear and 6-foot-10 sophomore Mangok Mathiang. Senior Chris Jones and sophomore Terry Rozier comprise the guard tandem, with both able to run the floor and score.
Rozier took a big first step toward that end offensively with game-high 25 points for the Red team in its 75-72 loss to the White squad. He just missed on a tying 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
“I just need to be more aggressive,” Rozier said in pregame interviews. “Last year, I was just sitting around and waiting for other people to make plays, which wasn’t my main role. Now, it’s different and I’m one of the main guys the offense will go through, so I have to be more aggressive.”
Pitino’s mission is quickly grooming newcomers such as guards Quentin Snider and Shaqquan Aaron; forward Jaylen Johnson; 7-footers Anas Mahmoud (Egypt) and Matz Stockman (Norway) and 6-10 Chinanu Onuaku.
Also back are reserves Anton Gill and Akoy Agau, who has yet to play after undergoing sports hernia surgery this summer.If the intrasquad scrimmage offered any hints, new faces such as Mahmoud have already bought into Pitino’s philosophy of tough defense. The thin yet nimble 200-pounder opened with several steals and dunks before establishing his presence in the middle.
Mahmoud’s highlight was an emphatic rejection of Rozier’s layup attempt that brought a huge cheer from the crowd. He finished with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks.
Jones had eight assists and hounded ball-handlers into mistakes leading to baskets for the White. Harrell had 24 points including 3-of-5 shooting from 3-point range, a new wrinkle that he’ll have to go to often to keep the Cardinals competitive.
“Montrezl has worked at making his game better, very similar to (former Louisville forward) Gorgui (Dieng),” Pitino said. “I’m real proud of him.”