*Midnight Madness is over, and with it went the smoke machines, dunk contests and laser shows that kick off the season. College basketball begins now, and while the excitement still remains it’s time to peel the hype back and see who the nation’s best truly are. That’s why Dime has you covered with individual previews of the nation’s top 15 teams and a few others just outside, all over the course of the next few weeks. Today, Louisville.
Do you still want to question Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals? After last year, do you really want to do that? This is a team built to win national championships, but they do not do it in a fun sexy manner that makes the casual fan want to tune in. They grind out wins playing full-game, full-court defense, which is rare in the offensive world that is becoming what basketball is all about.
Of the 346 teams in Division I, the Cardinals finished third in blocks and steals combined last season. The only other teams ahead of them were Kentucky and Syracuse. This team is not just a good athletic team, but rather they are a great athletic team — that translates to the defensive end, where they play coast-to-coast with reckless abandon flying all over the court creating havoc. That style — the havoc — gives this team the chance to beat anyone and more importantly, be great.
Two words: Rick Pitino. This team will not beat itself no matter the opponent and, just like last season, they can give anyone a run for their money. Go ask Anthony Davis and last year’s national champs; this team is tough. That is the most evident on defensive which cannot be more overstated.
The Cardinals finished as the 22nd best three-point defense, sixth-best field goal defense, fourth-best defensive rebounding team, and forced turnovers better than all but two teams overall. They get after shooters, push the pace with intense pressure and are then rewarded after forcing those missed shots by rebounding the ball. The anchor to that defense is Gorgui Dieng and the captain is Peyton Siva. Each provides a dynamic to the team that makes opposing offense players and coach’s cringe. Can they score enough to win tight games? Maybe, but more importantly, can teams score enough on them to make games tight enough to get the win against them?
It had to be invigorating for the Cardinals to have their head coach come out and commit to coaching this team for years past his original target retirement date. Sure, all these current players will be long gone by then, but this clearly indicates that the Hall of Fame coach has the energy coming into the season to lead this team to the promised land.
On the court, this team is going to be as experienced as anyone, experience that experience came from playing in high-profile games together. The projected starting lineup will have two juniors, two sophomores and a senior leading the way in Siva who went to a Final Four last season and won the Big East Tournament. Cohesiveness is exactly what this team personifies as six players average more than 9.0 points per game, including four of the five potential starters. Maybe the most important element that came out of last season was the subtle integration of Wayne Blackshear into the offense post-injury. He played well enough with the team down the stretch and adds another weapon on offense.