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Breaking down Louisville's big(s) problem

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Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

In the last two away games, announcers have accredited Louisville with "depth" at the five position. It’s typically a mark of overloaded talent to see three players who man the same position sharing minutes like that on a stat sheet, but for Louisville, that’s not desired depth. Rotating Chinanu Onuaku, Mangok Mathiang and Anas Mahmoud could much better be described as the opposite — shallow production, shallow experience, even, debated as of late, shallow talent.

The one with experience

From the start, Mangok Mathiang had an automatic disadvantage in that he was Gorgui Dieng’s successor. The similarities between the two seemed so clear that of course it would translate on the court, right? They were a similar height, similar background, had similar experience with basketball …. Both even went through the fake glasses phase.

We timelined Gorgui’s progress and tried to attach it to Mangok, forgetting the changing variables were, in fact, two different human beings. Why Mangok didn’t season the same is because, simply, he is not the same person, and we’ll never know more than that.

All that can be taken from those former expectations are his current numbers, which (hot basketball take) aren’t very good. Overall, he averages 2.9 points and 5.2 rebounds (highest of the three centers). For a little perspective, the squad’s starting shooting guard averages 5.5 rebounds per game.

Also, again, this:

The one who was unexpected

I can’t speak for all of Louisville (I’m not even in Louisville right now to ask all of Louisville), but I certainly did not expect Anas Mahmoud to be a real contributor this season. The seven-foot Egyptian seemed like a Pitino project who would spend much of his time on the bench, in the weight room and (hopefully) near the fridge. Heading into the regular season, I thought he was too underdeveloped, and I thought it didn’t matter because Mangok was the go-to.

Clearly, I know nothing. He has proven he can handle more than just pick up minutes, and Pitino seems to agree:

His stats aren’t appetizing, but it is worth noting that he averages only 9.5 minutes. Within that time, he averages less than two points or two rebounds, with 17 blocks on the season.

The one who starts

Chinanu Onuaku was a pleasant surprise at the beginning of the season. Even from the preseason scrimmages, Onuaku seemed more ready to be on that court than any freshman five in recent Pitino history. It’s not a shock anymore when Pitino recruits a big man who, five years ago, had no business on a basketball court. He recruits guys he can mold into the bigs he wants. Literally everyone listed so far (Mangok, Anas, even Gorgui) falls into this category, along with fourth string center, Matz.

Yet somehow, Onuaku was notable from the start. Yes, he has played shy, young, and withdrawn in multiple games, but he has undoubtedly been the most reliable of the unreliable string of fives.

It's certainly been frustrating that, between these three guys, so little production has been happening at the five starting spot. When shooting or defense lags like it did against NC State, the heat is put back on the bigs to churn out something, anything. Those added cushion points a center provides can be the difference in wins or losses, and we’ve missed those this year.

But production also relies heavily on being thrown the ball, and that hasn’t been seen much this season either. Getting consistent looks in the low post will only happen if the passer trusts the recipient enough to finish. That trust has yet to develop yet this season. Lack of efficiency around the rim, lack of aggression and lack of stable minutes doesn’t help Onuaku’s case. So far, starting him has not been an endorsement; it has been the only option. But it is becoming more and more apparent that the team needs low post game, and he is the most capable option. Hopefully going into future games, the team can back him.