*College basketball is here (unlike the NBA), and this year might be one of the best in recent memory. The powerhouse is back, while the Cinderellas believe. That’s a deadly combination. We know some of y’all have been asking for some previews. We have you covered – the top 16 teams in the nation will be previewed individually in the next few weeks. After we broke down Vandy on Friday, we’ll keep this going with No. 8-ranked Louisville and No. 6-ranked Duke later today (ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll).*
One name Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals probably don’t want to hear again is Kenneth Faried. Faried blocked Mike Marra’s three-point attempt as time expired, sending the improbable No. 13-seeded Morehead State Eagles into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. However, Pitino’s Cards bring back much of last year’s team, and have restocked with two McDonald’s All-Americans: Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan, two very versatile players who will have the KFC Yum! Center hopping this season. Just don’t get too used to them, they might be draft-bound come next spring.
Rick Pitino is happy to have junior point guard Peyton Siva back for another year, a player who he describes as one of the best leaders he’s ever had. Siva dished out 182 assists (fourth most in Louisville history) and nabbed 69 steals (seventh) to become the only Big East player in the top five in both categories. The Seattle-born guard also had a knack for the heroics last season, with game-tying shots in regulation and overtime against UConn and a ridiculous banker high off the glass against West Virginia in late January. Watch out for this kid to keep adding to his Sportscenter highlight tape this season.
The Louisville Cardinals attempted more three pointers (679) than any team in the Top 10. That’s due in large part to senior sharpshooter Kyle Kuric, who banged home 70 of 156 attempts last season. After averaging eight points and 2.7 assists through the season’s first 22 games, Kuric virtually doubled that output the rest of the way, putting up 15.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per outing. Look for Kuric to put up similar numbers the whole way through this season, particularly if Behanan demands double-teams.
Siva will be tasked with integrating freshmen Blackshear and Behanan, but also with getting Gorgui Dieng more involved. Dieng is a 6-11 sophomore from Senegal who showed a ton of promise as a shotblocker last season, turning away 56 shots in only 15.6 minutes per game. Dieng’s added strength and soft shooting touch (61.8 percent) should put him in position to be one of the surprise big men in the nation this year. Then there’s 6-2 senior guard Chris Smith, who surprised in his first season since transferring from Manhattan, with per game averages of 9.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists. He’ll be asked to be more of a presence defensively, especially with the departure of Preston Knowles.
Staying On The Court
Injuries were a major issue in Louisville last season. Veterans Rakeem Buckles and Jared Swopshire are key rebounders for the Cardinals, but Swopshire missed the entire 2010-11 campaign with a nagging groin injury that eventually required surgery while Buckles suffered three separate injuries, the last of which was a torn ACL that limited his season to just 16 games. Meanwhile, the status of highly touted freshman Blackshear is now in question as he deals with a shoulder injury (originally believed to be a torn labrum) that could have him out six to eight weeks.
On The Docket
The 2010-11 Louisville team successfully moved into the Top 25 with wins over Butler, UNLV, UConn, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, marching all the way to the Finals of the Big East Tournament before falling to the eventual National Champs, the Connecticut Huskies. This year, they have the pleasure of taking on three of last year’s Final Four teams in Butler, UCon, and in-state rival Kentucky in Lexington. They’ll also play top 10 competition in Memphis and Vanderbilt. But if last year’s clean sweep of top five competition is any indication, the Cards should stack up just fine.
The Louisville Cardinals will rely heavily on the production of Chase Behanan and Wayne Blackshear once he gets healthy. Depending so much on two freshmen can be somewhat of an unsettling thought in the dog-eat-dog Big East Conference. But with strong leadership in Siva and Smith, plus the optimism surrounding Dieng in the middle, look for Louisville to play this season with a chip on their shoulder – and remember Kenneth Faried.