Will he go small or will he go young?
Those are Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s only two options after junior forward Chane Behanan was dismissed from the team because of an undisclosed violation of university policy. Just as American Athletic Conference play begins with Tuesday’s trip to UCF, the Cardinals are essentially starting over, too, as their frontcourt seeks to find a new identity.
That was true even with Behanan in the lineup. Louisville was outscored by North Carolina (52-26) and Kentucky (42-24) in the paint and was outrebounded in both games, both of them losses.
“Our frontcourt, it’s obvious from the North Carolina as well as the Kentucky game, is the weak part of our basketball team right now,” Pitino said.
Just to be clear, Louisville doesn’t have a replacement for Behanan. For all of his shortcomings of being an undersized, 6-foot-6 power forward, he had a knack for coming up big for the Cards in big games.
As a freshman, he scored nine of his 17 points during an 18-3 run as Louisville rallied from an 11-point deficit against Florida in the Elite Eight. It helped Behanan earn 2012 West Regional Most Outstanding Player honors. That performance may have been surpassed only by his second half of the 2013 national championship game, when Behanan had 11 points and 11 rebounds in the win over Michigan.
For all of the potential sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell has shown, Harrell hasn’t delivered in as many big games as Behanan did. Harrell will definitely have to deliver now.
“[Behanan] helped us win two Big East titles, he helped us go to two Final Fours, he’s helped us win a national championship,” Pitino said.
The thought was always that Pitino would use Harrell at center and Behanan at power forward so they could be in the same lineup and Louisville could have its best players on the floor. With Behanan gone, Harrell will likely need to increase his 24.4 minutes per game, along with his average of 12 points and eight rebounds. Harrell’s best performance remains his 20 points and seven rebounds against Syracuse in the Big East tournament championship game last season.
Even as Pitino mentioned that guard Kevin Ware could possibly be shut down for the rest of the season so his right leg can fully heal, it won’t have an impact like Behanan’s absence.
“Ware is not a factor on our basketball team. He hasn’t been this season, so we’ve been playing without him,” Pitino said. “Behanan is a major factor.”
Behanan was averaging just 7.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, both career lows, but Louisville’s frontcourt may have a tough time filling that void. Freshman Mangok Mathiang leads the team in blocked shots, and senior Stephan Van Treese is one of the better rebounders on the team, but both are limited offensively. Freshman Akoy Agau can hold his own offensively and is a natural power forward, but he has played a total of only 38 minutes this season in eight games.
The Cardinals’ frontcourt will be much different without Behanan. When Harrell comes out of the game for a breather, foul trouble or even plays center, junior small forward Wayne Blackshear could end up moving to power forward. Or Pitino is weighing using Agau.
“As we get ready for Central Florida, the big thing is, can we teach Wayne Blackshear the 4 spot in a matter of hours with 30 different sets and all the different defenses?” Pitino said. “Or can we try Akoy and get by?”
The last time Pitino played small with a four-guard lineup, the Cards ended up in the 2012 Final Four. But Kyle Kuric had already gained experience playing out of position at power forward during the 2010-11 season. Blackshear, who is 6-5, doesn’t have the same level of familiarity with the position that Kuric had.
Pitino said the 6-8 Agau, like freshman guard Anton Gill, could have handled extended minutes from the start offensively, but his defensive lapses have kept him from receiving more playing time.
“The problem they have is defensively they don’t understand defenses at the collegiate level,” Pitino said. “They have a very difficult time guarding their man, they have very difficult time getting over screens -- it’s true of a lot of freshmen at this stage.”
It was once true of Behanan, but he still started as a freshman and sophomore before having to come off the bench in all 12 games he appeared in this season. Behanan was indefinitely suspended in October but reinstated not quite a month later and ultimately missed only one game. The Cardinals never really had to get used to playing without him.
Now they do, and Louisville will have to figure it out in a hurry.