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Looking ahead: Louisville Cardinals

Editor’s note: It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. In the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 that could make noise on the national stage.

It might seem difficult to make a case that a team overachieved when it was just three years removed from a national championship and had a preseason top-10 ranking. But if you watched the Louisville Cardinals this season, you’d have no trouble making that argument.

The Cardinals couldn’t score -- and that was before one of their best and most reliable scorers, Chris Jones, was booted from the team amid rape allegations.

Yet Louisville still made it to within a game of the Final Four before bowing out to Michigan State.

If it wasn’t quite smoke and mirrors, it was arguably one of Rick Pitino’s better coaching jobs, reconfiguring the Cards on the fly and squeezing everything he could out of a limited lineup that made up for its offensive struggles with its defensive fortitude.

It helped certainly that he had Montrezl Harrell, who elevated his game to new levels in the postseason, and Terry Rozier, who elevated his game to new levels after the dismissal of Jones.

Maybe all of that shuffling will help Pitino get through the upcoming season, when six players who opened the 2014-15 season will no longer be in Cards uniforms. Harrell and Rozier declared early. Wayne Blackshear graduated. Jones is gone and Anton Gill and Shaqquan Aaron are transferring.

It may not have quite the same fanfare as the seven-man news conference down the road in Lexington, but this year will be every bit as much a do-over for Louisville.

What the immediate future holds: Louisville for 2015-16 could best be described as a newfangled hoops Ellis Island, a co-mingling of every sort of player that makes up a roster these days: returning role players who need to do more, incoming freshmen and graduate transfers.

With so many guys leaving and not a lot of experience to call on, Pitino has been shopping the graduate transfer market hard, looking for guys who can score. It's a novel idea for a team that didn’t have that last year, isn’t it?

Cleveland State’s Trey Lewis already announced he will finish up his career at Louisville. The guard set a single-season record in 2014-15, draining 96 3-pointers. As a team, the Cards sunk 198 last season.

The Cards are also in with Drexel transfer Damion Lee, who has narrowed his list to five schools. The fourth-leading scorer in the nation this season averaged 21.4 points per game and would be a much-needed jolt of instant offense for Louisville.

Those two would be a bonus to an already talented recruiting class that includes Donovan Mitchell (6-foot-3 off guard), Deng Adel (6-8 small forward), local product Raymond Spalding (top-60 forward) and Ryan McMahon (6-1 shooter from Sarasota, Florida). Of that group, Mitchell and Adel could find their way into the starting lineup or be first off the bench.

The most critical thing for Louisville, though, will be the guys who are coming back. The Cardinals have long hitched their wagon to players who serve as leaders as much as scorers and without Harrell and Rozier, it’s critical that someone fills that void.

Quentin Snider already proved worthy of Pitino’s praise and trust. Inserted into the lineup after Jones was dismissed, Snider answered by averaging 11 points and a yeoman’s 37.5 minutes during the NCAA tournament. As the lone returning guy in the backcourt, his ability to guide this team will be crucial.

The staff is high on sophomore Jaylen Johnson. As Harrell’s backup, he didn’t get much playing time last season but Pitino praised his toughness and attitude. With another summer to put on weight and get the sort of conditioning that Louisville basketball requires, he could be a more-than-adequate replacement for Harrell.

Ironically, the biggest question mark for the Cards comes at the position where they have the most options -- center. Mangok Mathiang, Chinanu Onuaku and Anas Mahmoud all have valuable experience, but the Cards didn’t get a whole lot from any of them. That was OK with Harrell in the lineup. It won’t be OK going forward.