The sailing had been almost too smooth for the 2016-17 University of Louisville men’s basketball team.
In the span of less than a month, the Cardinals had defeated Kentucky, Indiana and Duke, three of the biggest names in college basketball and three names unlikely to elicit many expressions of affection from UofL fans. Louisville’s veteran backcourt was playing like it was the best in the ACC, and unsung heroes like Anas Mahmoud and VJ King were starting to have the “lightbulb” moment that we’ve seen from Rick Pitino players so many times before around this time of the year.
The best part? Unlike so many times in years past, there had been no injury, no suspension or no unexpected negative piece of the off-the-court news to derail all the momentum.
That was until Monday night, when Louisville announced the junior point guard Quentin Snider will be sidelined two to three weeks while he recovers from a strained hip flexor. Snider suffered the injury early in the second half of the Cardinals’ win over Duke when he tumbled to the floor after connecting on a running layup. He played through the pain and helped carry the Cards to a 78-69 victory, but afterward received the diagnosis that he would need some time off in order to be back to 100 percent by tournament time.
Without another true point guard on Louisville’s roster, it’s always been easy to make the case for Snider as Pitino’s most valuable player. Less expected is the fact that at the midway point of the season, it’s almost just as easy to make the case that the Ballard High product has been Louisville’s best player.
Snider, who is on pace to finish as UofL’s all-time leader in assist-to-turnover ratio, is the Cardinals’ current assist leader and second-leading scorer, averaging 12.1 points, 4.0 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game. He is third in the ACC and 32nd in the nation in assist-to-turnovers ratio (2.88). Snider had been especially stellar as of late, averaging 15.7 points and six assists over Louisville’s last three games. He has hit 12-of-24 three-pointers in UofL’s five ACC games (.500), the fourth-best clip in the league.
So that’s what Pitino now has to find a way to replace over his team’s next five to six games.
The good news is that if there was ever a stretch for Snider to go down in ACC play, it would be this one. There are no off-nights in America’s deepest conference, but that doesn’t mean that some weeks aren’t more manageable than others. Of Louisville’s next five games, only one – this Saturday at No. 10 Florida State – comes against a ranked opponent. If Snider is able to return following that stretch, his first game back in uniform will come on the road against No. 16 Virginia, the team that has had UofL’s number more than any other since the program joined the ACC.
The bad news is that even without the pressure of staring down a murderer’s row of opponents, there’s no clearcut answer when it comes to the best way to go about life without Snider.
Snider’s primary backup this season has been graduate transfer Tony Hicks, who is averaging 9.5 minutes and just 3.0 points per game. Unlike Damion Lee and Trey Lewis a year ago, Hicks has seemed to struggle with adapting to life in Pitino’s culture of high-demand. He has consistently found himself in the doghouse and has not gotten off the bench at all in five games this season. Perhaps this will prove to be the nudge Hicks needed to finally get his final season of college ball on the right track.
The other option Pitino has at his disposal is to slide star two guard Donovan Mitchell over to the point and insert King into the starting lineup next to him. It’s a risky move considering that Mitchell’s ball-handling skills are not up to par with what you typically see from an ACC point guard and that King’s freshman season has seen more lows than highs up to this point. Still, Pitino may not have a choice but to roll the dice on two highly talented players having the ability to adjust.
There is no easy solution to the Snider problem, but perhaps whatever the result is will wind up being something that helps this team dramatically come March. We’ve certainly seen it happen before. More than once. VT
Photo by Adam Creech.