Looking ahead: Louisville Cardinals ready to soar again, if allowed to fly

It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: the Louisville Cardinals.

Louisville is that rare team that will lose its top two scorers from last season in Damion Lee and Trey Lewis but that could be even better next season -- good enough to challenge the likely ACC favorite Duke for the league title; good enough to, perhaps, net Rick Pitino his fourth Final Four appearance with the Cardinals and first since they won it all in 2013. That will happen only if the NCAA finds the school’s self-imposed punishments good enough penance for the escort scandal that sabotaged last season.

A self-described former escort named Katina Powell released a book that alleged former Louisville director of basketball operations Andre McGee paid her to supply strippers for parties at an on-campus dorm for recruits and basketball players. Results from investigations by the school and NCAA have not been made public yet, but the university apparently found enough wrongdoing that it decided to discipline itself first.

In February, despite being ranked in the top 20 and still in the race for the ACC regular-season crown, Louisville announced a postseason ban that prevented it from participating in even the conference tournament. Earlier this month, the university announced more self-imposed penalties that included scholarship reductions and limiting recruiting days.

The NCAA reportedly is close to sending out a notice of allegations on its findings at Louisville. The fear of that unknown is why every proclamation about next season for Louisville has to be tempered by the phrase, "if the NCAA doesn’t impose harsher sanctions."

Judging by the penalties levied against Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and SMU’s Larry Brown last season, Pitino will likely face a nine-game suspension next season. The NCAA implemented that rule to hold coaches accountable regardless of their knowledge of violations that occurred within their program.

The only other unknown for next season has to do with forward Chinanu Onuaku's status. The 6-foot-10 rising junior declared for the NBA draft -- but did not sign with an agent. He’ll be able to receive feedback from the league but keep his option of returning to school. Onuaku led the team in blocked shots (62) and rebounds (8.5 per game), and if he figures to be a first-round lock, he probably won’t be in a Cardinals uniform next season. ESPN Insider Chad Ford has Onuaku projected as falling anywhere between 25 and 40 overall, which indicates he’s a borderline first-rounder.

Truthfully, Louisville’s frontcourt could survive even if he does leave. Senior center Mangok Mathiang will return after playing just 10 games last season before a broken left foot ended his year. Forwards Jaylen Johnson and Ray Spalding along with 7-footers Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman will give the Cardinals one of the deepest frontcourts in the league.

Their strength will likely be on the wing. Deng Adel arguably has the most potential to be a star on the team. His improvement from freshman to sophomore year could mimic that of Duke’s Grayson Allen, who went from role player to leading scorer. Adel, a 6-foot-7 small forward, averaged just 4.0 points per game last season, but could quietly be the leader of the team simply because everyone respects his skill set.

Guard Donovan Mitchell will assume a bigger role after coming off the bench in all but five games last season. The 6-foot-3 sophomore is possibly the most athletically gifted player in the conference. And imagine, if he sheds a few pounds the way Pitino would like for him to do, he could be even more explosive next season.

Incoming freshman V.J. King, who was ranked 26 in the ESPN 100, can play either shooting guard or small forward in the lineup. He has the ability to step in and get big minutes right away.

Junior point guard Quentin Snider and guard Tony Hicks, a graduate transfer from Penn, will add an offensive pop to the lineup. Snider led the team in 3-point percentage (40.4 percent), and Hicks led the Quakers in scoring for two seasons.

Pitino shied away from his brand a bit last season, as the Cardinals did not rely on using full-court pressure the way he’s been known to in the past. They could return to that style this season with the depth and experience to go along with the athleticism to play it.

The Cardinals defense ranked No. 2 in adjusted efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy, marking the sixth straight season they ranked in the top five nationally. But the Cardinals have been most dangerous when they can find ways to score easily offensively. Next season they should be able to do it, if the NCAA doesn’t impose harsher sanctions.