Deng Adel has been out with a knee sprain. Dillon Avare was in a walking boot for a few weeks. David Levitch looked like he’d auditioned for the movie “Creed” and sported a black eye this season. Anas Mahmoud sprained his ankle. Now Mangok Mathiang has a broken foot. The Cardinal “walking wounded” have already had an eventful 6 weeks to start the season.
Through it all the Cards have moved throughout 2015-16 with an upward trajectory. A 4-point road loss to the #1 team in the nation is the only setback and left the fans wondering what this team might look like if it had Deng Adel to guard Denzel Valentine. Moving forward fans & the basketball world may wonder what Louisville might look like if they had its vocal leader, its most veteran player, and a Power Forward/Center that has been playing his best basketball of his collegiate career.
The Cards will get Deng Adel & Anas Mahmoud back soon. It’ll be needed. What kind of shape will Adel be in upon his return? For what its worth the Louisville backcourt has been the catalyst offensively and its front court has been the catalyst defensively and on the glass. Against Western Kentucky Rick Pitino played just 8 players, one of which was Mathiang. How will Mangok’s absence affect the Cards?
Life Without Mangok
Mangok has been playing 18.8 minutes per game. He’s started two games thus far and had a standout performance of 17 points, 13 rebounds versus Saint Louis. He’s also been passing the ball much better and has developed a few post moves that we haven’t seen in the past. Louisville will now not see Mathiang return to action until early to mid-February…..so what affect will that have on the Cards?
One Less Big Man
First of all, Mangok is a big body and the Cards have succeeded by sending wave after wave of big men to dominate the glass and avoid foul trouble overall for the frontline. Not having Mangok places a greater emphasis on avoiding that foul trouble and presumably will leave Rick Pitino with the choice of mixing & matching different lineups to try and ‘stretch out’ players to fill Mathiang’s 18.8 minutes per game. This will happen by committee.
Mathiang comes in with different roles for the Cards. If Chinanu Onuaku gets two fouls in the 1st half, Mangok sticks at Center. But he also plays quite a bit at the 4. The answer for who relieves Nanu now is not so simple. Does Pitino go with Anas Mahmoud? Ray Spalding? Matz Stockman? This will probably vary game to game on what the rotation settles into, but it’s easy to slot Jaylen Johnson as a Power Forward only and look to the Anas/Ray/Matz trio as the committee to play the back-up 5. Nanu’s silly fouls now become more of an area of emphasis.
Pitino can plug talented big men into different roles & situations, but he can’t replace Mangok’s experience. This team for Louisville is mostly new and now Quentin Snider, Chinanu Onuaku, David Levitch, Matz Stockman, Dillon Avare and Anas Mahmoud become the most experienced players in the Louisville system.
The Cards have worked hard to establish Pitino’s famous match-up zone and press, losing a back line player like Mathiang who has been in the system for 4 years is a big-time blow. The good news is that while Mangok is injured, his leadership is still going to exist from the bench and in practice.
The good news for the Cards is that there are some seriously talented front-court players on this basketball team. Chinanu Onuaku is a REALLY intelligent basketball player and if he can avoid the 1st half foul trouble he can extend his 19.8 minutes per game. Nanu’s stamina is about to be tested so Pitino will need to monitor his fatigue so that he can avoid the ‘out of gas foul’.
Jaylen Johnson also figures to play significantly more minutes with one of the other big guys likely to see more time at Center. Johnson began the year in the starting line-up and has done really well. It will be interesting to see if Pitino alters his starting lineup to put Jaylen back into the starting role so as to reserve Ray Spalding’s first action for the player who needs it OR if Ray will continue to start and Anas/Jaylen will be the 1st big off the bench alternatively based on need.
Ray Spalding continues to impress as a disruptive force defensively and as an offensive player who finds space around the basket without the ball. To me, Mangok’s absence is probably the biggest opportunity for both Ray Spalding & Jaylen Johnson. But also Matz Stockman will also be plugged in at times.
When Mathiang Comes Back
When Mangok’s foot heals, it’s not likely that he’ll immediately be ready to contribute in the same that he was before his injury. 6-8 weeks is going to reduce Mangok’s stamina no matter what kind of anti-G exercise, swimming, cycling, etc. nothing is replacement for the sport itself. There is also the skill factor and getting adjusted to the speed of the game again. Mangok left vs. Western Kentucky. When he returns Louisville will be in the middle of its conference schedule: 2/1 North Carolina, 2/6 Boston College, 2/8 Duke, 2/13 Notre Dame, 2/17 Syracuse, 2/20 Duke, 2/24 Pitt, 2/27 Miami…….there really isn’t a good time to re-introduce Mangok to college basketball.
Being a 4th year player the adjustment won’t be nearly as difficult as plugging a true freshman back into the line-up (like Deng Adel is about to do), but there will be no easing back in. When Mangok returns it will be back to the fire. Where Louisville is at that point depends a great deal on the development of some young big men. Rick Pitino has lots of options and now is the time for this group to step up and fill the void of their teammate.