University of Louisville opens its basketball season in three weeks with the usual slate of question marks. But newcomer Tony Hicks has at least one answer.
Hicks is a graduate transfer from the University of Pennsylvania, who will play his fourth and final year of college basketball for Louisville — and stands a very good chance of making a significant contribution. That’s the advance notice.
But an inquiring mind wonders just what kind of player Hicks will be. What’s his style? What’s his game? He’s a former Chicago high school star, a 6-foot-1 guard who started three years for the Penn Quakers before sitting out his senior season to graduate with an Ivy League diploma and enroll in graduate school at Louisville for one last year of college basketball.
But what will he do here?
We picked out a tricky question, and asked:
Just speaking hypothetically, Tony, if you score 20 points in a big game this season, how are you going to get those baskets?
“It’ll come off steals,” said Hicks, without hesitation. “A lot of steals, a lot of run outs. Hopefully, there’ll be a lot of free throws and three balls, too. But my points will come with the team getting a lot of steals and getting up and down the court.”
Which is just exactly the right answer — because creating steals, and cashing those steals for baskets, is precisely the style Louisville coach Rick Pitino has prescribed for his team this season. It’s almost as if Hicks has been listening!
“It isn’t a new style,” said Pitino. “It’s just that in recent years we have confused a lot of (opponents) with our defense and our match-up zone — but now we’ve scrapped that and are playing 95 percent man-to-man.”
Pitino feels his players have the size and quickness to upset the tempo of the game — that rather than bewilder opponents to death with tricky zone defenses, he’s going to send his men straight at opponents. Try to snatch the ball and race straight to the basket to score. Then, before they can catch a breath, slap on a smothering full-court press and go all out for the ball again … and again, and again.
If it works, opponents, as the song says, could find themselves in for a hot time at the old house tonight. Even in their house.
And, of course, that style has historical precedent. Pitino’s 2004 team, led by Francisco Garcia, Taquan Dean, Larry O’Bannon and Luke Whitehead, played a way-out-on-the edge, full-octane defense to go 20-10. The next season, Pitino sanded a few rough edges, and the Cardinals went 33-5, winning 13 games in a row at the end of the season before finally bowing out to Illinois in the 2005 Final Four in Albuquerque.
Even better, Louisville in 2012 fielded a tenacious 30-10 team that couldn’t shoot a lick, but scratched and snatched its way to the Final Four. Ultra pesky guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith both ranked in the top five in the nation in steals. A year later, that team rolled to the school’s third National Championship in 2013 in Atlanta.
Could this team be on that kind of trajectory?
The Cardinals of 2016-17 return just one full-time starter from a year ago, but run 10-12 deep with crew of semi-experienced hands who imagine themselves bound for glory. If not this year, then sometime soon.
Pitino said he could feel that kind of energy perking in his players this summer, after Louisville finished 21-8 in 2015, and took a self-imposed year off from the NCAA tournament to (hopefully) satisfy recruiting violations.
“We did less individual work (over the past summer), and asked our players to do it on their own — so we could try to work as a team on a loose style of play,” said Pitino, a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach with 745 wins in 30 seasons. Pitino also promised a change from a deliberate pick-and-roll offense to a “motion” offense that keeps everyone moving at all times. That means Louisville will be going nonstop offensively and defensively from tip-off to game’s end. But it has the long bench to do it, Pitino believes.
Louisville begins with returning starter Quentin Snider, a steady, heady junior guard who relishes playing a key role in big games. Top potential talents include 6-7 sophomore Deng Adel, 6-6 freshman V.J. King and spring-loaded 6-3 sophomore Donovan Mitchell. The common thread, you may have noticed, is all the above are young. Hardly a senior in sight until Mango Mathiang returns from a foot injury — and you add Hicks.
Louisville will be ranked in the preseason Top 25. But that’s mostly because Louisville is normally ranked in the Top 25. Its star players aren’t hot tweets on Twitter and don’t seem to merit a mention on the basketball celebrity watch lists. Mitchell said he doesn’t care, but he’s aware: “My mom is big on all that stuff. She says, ‘Did you see this? Did you see that?’
“There’s certain articles that have described us as a bunch of average dudes,” Mitchell noted. “Reminds me of high school. Nobody really knew who I was, and the same thing with this team. When we come out and make an impact, people will know who we are.”
As Pitino noted, Louisville has real size in frontcourt players Jaylen Johnson, Ray Spalding, Mathiang and Anas Mahmoud, who range from to 6-9 to 7-0.
Add senior guard David Levitch, a confident player, backup center Matz Stockman, and newcomers Ryan McMahon and Dwayne Sutton, and Louisville has Pitino-style depth.
“There are a lot of strengths of this ball club; one of the weaknesses is they are inexperienced in a lot of areas,” said Pitino. “You have many players that had a role to play last year trying to fit in as young players, and now they have to be in a starring role. Rather than try to teach (the sophisticated defenses) and hopefully be better by sometime around Christmas, we want to be ready at the start of the season.”
Which, if we are interpreting this correctly, doesn’t mean polished-ready. It means Louisville will begin its season ready to rip, skip and steal.
Who will the top robbers be?
Hicks seems set to strike. After talking about steals at Louisville’s media day on Tuesday, Oct. 11, Hicks collected three steals and scored 26 points in an inter-squad scrimmage on Wednesday. Spalding made five steals, Mitchell dished seven assists, Johnson grabbed 20 rebounds, and red-shirt freshman McMahon hit six of eight three-point attempts. Nice numbers for those guys, and it all sounds pretty. But it wasn’t. (You’ve seen inter-squad games.)
Hicks said the opportunity to play for Pitino is the reason he chose Louisville. Plus, he noticed the success graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis achieved here last year.
But it’s the team camaraderie he has enjoyed most so far. “That’s something on our team,” said Hicks. “Everyone wants to be a pro, and everyone wants to help each other get there.
“This is a school where the national championship, the Final Four, is an expectation every year,” added Hicks. “That’s something I hadn’t had the chance to be a part of. I was going to go to Oregon. They’re ranked higher than us right now, in preseason. But this is a program that gets better every day. Come March, we’ll be ready.”
And by then, we should have additional answers.