University of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino will have a significantly different frontcourt for the 2014-15 season. On paper, the departures of senior center Stephan Van Treese and swingman Luke Hancock won't be difficult to replace, as the Cardinals return a trio of key players and welcome a host of newcomers.
An area that was potentially a concern was eliminated when forward Montrezl Harrell made the decision to forgo the NBA draft for at least one more season and return for his junior season with the Cardinals. Harrell, a first team all-conference performer a season ago, will be expected to build upon his 14.0 ppg and 8.4 rpg averages of last season.
“Montrezl has come back maturing as a leader, something that was missing in his game besides foul shooting,” Pitino said. “He's emotionally a leader, and he's leading positively and we're all very excited to see that.”
That leadership thrust Harrell back into a captain’s role, something that he'll share with senior small forward Wayne Blackshear.
For Blackshear the time is now, and Pitino has challenged the former McDonald's All-American to focus on improving his consistency and overall play as he begins his final year in the Red and Black.
Plagued by shoulder injuries for much of his early U of L career, Blackshear is fully healthy and rededicated. The 6-5, 215-pound product of Chicago's Morgan Park High School has been one of the more frequent visitors to the workout room and he's spent much of the offseason improving his game.
“He's been working twice a day, every single day, since school ended,” Pitino said. “He's the biggest surprise and the biggest change.”
As a junior, Blackshear, who started 18 games, led the team in three-point accuracy, connecting on 40 percent of his more than 100 attempts. He finished the season with 8.2 ppg and 3.1 rpg, but the Cards need him to improve upon those stats as a senior.
Harrell and Blackshear will be joined by Mangok Mathiang in the starting lineup to create an athletic, attacking and defensive-minded frontcourt.
Mathiang displayed flashes of excellent play as a freshman, and following an offseason filled with individual instruction, is expected to be ready for a primary role.
“He's gotten much bigger physically,” Pitino said. “Not so much in putting on weight, but he's almost muscle-bound right now. He is cut.”
Still developing his offensive game, Mathiang is an already dangerous shot-blocker and is improving around the rim. He appeared in all 37 games last season, starting 14, and his 1.4 blocks per game average equaled Harrell for best on the team.
Mathiang's progress throughout the season led his head coach to label him, along with sophomore Akoy Agau, as two that have made the largest strides while prepping for the new season.
“The two biggest improvements on the team early on, without question, is Akoy Agau and Mangok,” Pitino said. “Akoy is a different person, physically, emotionally and mentally,” said Pitino. “That's a great thing for us because we need that position desperately.”
At 6-8 and 230 pounds, Agau has the frame to provide immediate assistance this season. While he played in just 19 games as a freshman, primarily in blowout win situations, Agau, a top-20 center as a high school senior, has improved tremendously while working with the upperclassmen.
To further bolster the Cardinals’ front line, Pitino and staff signed five in the 2014 recruiting class. It's a group that includes a trio who should provide some immediate help off the bench and two others who may redshirt.
Shaqquan Aaron, a 6-7 small forward who may also see time at shooting guard. Aaron, who currently sidelined while awaiting clearance from the NCAA, rates as a five-star and top-30 prospect by Scout.com. Aaron is the highest-rated prospect in this freshman class, and his style of play is reminiscent of a former U of L great.
“Shaqquan reminds us of Francisco Garcia,” described Pitino. “The bad news is he has Francisco's body, but the good news is he has Francisco's game. He's a very talented young man.”
Another recruit who will contribute is 6-10, 230-pound center Chinanu Onuaku, from Riverdale Baptist School in Upper Marlboro, Md. A post player who has always leaned on his size to dominate the high school level, Onuaku worked extremely hard since arriving in the Derby City and will help provide a physical presence down low.
“He's physically ready,” said Pitino. “He'll be a good guy coming off the bench. He probably has the most room to grow because he's never been in shape in his life. He's getting into shape now, and every single time we work him out he looked better.”
Jaylen Johnson, a 6-9, 215-pound power forward arrived late on campus due to NCAA paperwork. While he was immediately behind his new teammates upon arrival, the former four-star prospect is expected to contribute in his first year.
A possible redshirt candidate, 7-2 Matz Stockman played for the Canarias Basketball Academy team in the Canary Islands. A native of Oslo, Norway, Stockman turned heads when playing in the United States soon after pledging to the Cardinals.
"He's a legit 7-2 with a legit 7-6 wing span, runs very well and has outstanding hands," Pitino said. "He knows how to pass and knows how to play. He has to learn how to play the game the American way. But it will come fast because he's very smart and knows how to play the game.”
Originally from Egypt, Anas Mahmoud played last season at Orlando (Fla.) West Oak Academy and averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots a game.
“Anas is a young man who is very, very gifted for a 7-footer,” Pitino said. “Good hands, good shot, good footwork, but he's probably going to need a redshirt season because he's very thin. He's gong to be terrific down the road.”
The 2014-15 edition of the Cardinals frontcourt will be more impactful than last year’s group, and should allow the team to compete for the ACC title and make a run at the program's fourth national championship.
“I don't think our frontcourt, or our backcourt, has to take a back seat to anybody in the country,” said Pitino. “I won't say they're better, but they don't have to take a back seat to anybody.”
NOTE: This Story Appears in the WINTER 2014 ISSUE OF CARDINAL AUTHORITY MAGAZINE