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Pitino thinks his young Cardinals may be the surprise factor in rugged ACC race

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE–On paper, the 2015-16 edition of coach Rick Pitino’s University of Louisville basketball team — his 15th at the school — appears to be one of his weakest in recent years.

After all, the Cardinals lost the bulk of their scoring and rebounding from last year’s Elite Eight squad when Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier all departed, leaving Pitino to deal with an extremely young roster than has no seniors.

There are seven newcomers, along with six sophomores, and for one of the few times during Pitino’s reign his team isn’t ranked in the preseason Top-25.

Freshman forward Deng Adel led all scorers with 35 points in the Red-White contest and added nine rebounds and six assists (U of L Athletics Photo)

Freshman forward Deng Adel led all scorers with 35 points in the Red-White contest and added nine rebounds and six assists (U of L Athletics Photo)

Nevertheless, although he calls the Cards “the X factor” in the Atlantic Coast Conference, he is having none of the rebuilding talk.

“I’ve got very optimistic goals for this basketball team,” Pitino says. “I don’t want to get carried away, but I’m very excited about this team. I think they’re going to do some great things.”

Pitino’s comment came in a short video made available to the media because he isn’t attending ACC Media Day Wednesday to avoid creating a distraction, he says, in light of the interest in UofL’s sex scandal.

After the second Red-White intrasquad game, Pitino said he is particularly impressed with the offense, which was one of the worst shooting teams in Louisville history.

“It’s going to be exciting because we can shoot,” he says. “We can shoot free throws, which is a welcome sign. And I think we’ve got a lot of potential, because our young guys are going to grow, get better and better.”

The main reason for Pitino’s confidence in an improved offense is the addition of a pair of prolific-scoring fifth-year transfers — Damion Lee from Drexel and Trey Lewis from Cleveland State.

Lee was the nation’s fourth-leading scorer last year with a 21.4 average. He was the top scorer for Louisville during the Cards’ trip to Puerto Rico in August, averaging 23.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and connecting on 15-of-38 three-pointers (.395), with a high of 36 points against the Puerto Rico National Team.

While averaging 16.3 ppg for Cleveland State last season, Lewis hit a school single-season record of 96 3-pointers (42.3 percent) and has scored 1,098 points in a three-year college career that started at Penn State.

In the last Red-White intrasquad game, Lee had 33 points, 13 rebounds and five steals and committed only one turnover.

“Damion is an explosive scorer,” Pitino says. “He’s doing it all for us in practice — rebounding, passing, and his quick release reminds me of a player I coached named Ron Mercer. Lewis is learning to play more at the point guard position. He’s strong and aggressive and has a great stroke.”

Pitino said that Lee and Lewis will probably be in the starting lineup when UofL opens its season against Samford on Nov. 13 in the KFC Yum! Center. He also named 6-10 fourth-year junior Mangok Mathiang — now the veteran on the team — as a probable starter and said sophomore guard Quentin Snider “will play major minutes.”

“Outside of that, the other guys are all very talented, are going to play a lot,” Pitino says. “But exactly who’s going to start will probably change from game to game.”

Freshman forward Deng Adel led all scorers with 35 points in the Red-White contest and added nine rebounds and six assists.

“This, by far, is the best freshman class I’ve had here at Louisville,” Pitino says. “They are all really, really talented. And probably as good as Deng is, (6-10) Raymond Spalding has the most upside of all of them. Very talented class.”

UofL will play the first of two exhibition games Sunday at 1:30 p.m. against NCAA Division II power Bellarmine in the KFC Yum! Center, then host Kentucky Wesleyan on Nov. 9.

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