Tipping Off The Big East Countdown: #1 LouisvillePosted by mlemaire on November 11th, 2012
It is truly a testament to the coaching ability of Rick Pitino that last season’s offensively challenged Louisville team made the Final Four after finishing the regular season seventh in the conference. The Cardinals had trouble scoring and dealt with a rash of injuries all season, and yet when most of the dust had cleared, there was Pitino and his team, scrapping with an overpowering Kentucky team in the Final Four. In the end, Kentucky was too much, but now the roles have reversed. The team in Lexington has a lot of questions to answer, while the team in Louisville returns four of its top six scorers, including the reigning conference defensive player of the year and one of the favorites for this season’s conference player of the year. Assuming some of the team’s underclassmen progress as expected and most of the team can stay healthy, there are very few squads in the country who can match the Cardinals’ combination of talent and depth. Now it will be up to Pitino and his staff to put all the pieces together. There are still plenty of questions about where the offense will come from and the roster’s one weakness may be its lack of an accomplished outside shooter. But the Cardinals’ defense was the most efficient in the country last season and it should be almost as good if not better this season. Anything less than a return trip to the Final Four will probably be viewed as a disappointment, especially if that team in Lexington makes it back instead.
2011-12 Record: 30-10, 10-8
2011-12 Postseason: NCAA Tournament Final Four, lost to Kentucky 69-61.
Schedule: Just a quick glance at the Cardinals’ non-conference slate should make it plainly obvious that Louisville will have little trouble with the opposition in the early part of the season. A December trip to Memphis and the home bout with Kentucky right before the New Year represent what should be the only two challenging non-conference opponents Louisville will face. As for the conference schedule, aside from a four-game stretch in the middle of January where a home date with Syracuse is sandwiched between road games at Connecticut and Villanova and then Georgetown, the rest of the conference slate should be manageable for a team as experienced, deep, and physical as the Cardinals.
Who’s out: Given how much talent is returning to campus, it is astonishing to see that Louisville lost a lot of useful players. The biggest two departures were Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith, the team’s leading and third-leading scorers respectively. The duo was also the team’s most reliable outside shooters and their absence leaves a sizable gap on the perimeter the Cardinals will be hard-pressed to fill. The three other notable departures were forward Jared Swopshire, the oft-injured forward Rakeem Buckles and little-used guard Elisha Justice, all of whom chose to transfer and play elsewhere. Swopshire was a valuable reserve last season but wouldn’t have found consistent playing time this season. Buckles and Justice were both going to have a difficult time seeing the floor at all and their departures may have actually freed up spots for more talented players, like incoming freshman Montrezl Harrell.
If we want to stretch the definition of “out” then it is probably worth including senior wing Mike Marra in this discussion as his season and basketball career are probably over a recent re-tear of the same ACL that forced him to miss all of last season. Marra wasn’t a standout, but he was a heady forward who could guard multiple positions and knock down the open shot. Luckily the Cardinals are deep enough on the wing to withstand his injury. Give credit to Louisville’s coaching staff because it is not very often that any team can stockpile so much talent that five legitimate contributors can leave the program without too much worry.
Who’s In: The flip side of players transferring out of the program is that is opens up scholarships for other players. Before Buckles or Justice announced they would transfer, it didn’t look like the Cardinals would have the scholarships to add another player. But once the transfers were announced, it wasn’t long before the Cardinals – with help from Virginia Tech’s decision to fire Seth Greenberg – poached the college-ready Harrell from the Hokies. Physically, Harrell is ready to play in the Big East right now after a year at Hargrave Military Academy. However, Harrell still has a lot to learn and a number of people ahead of him on the depth chart. He has the talent to work his way into the rotation and expect him to be a major contributor once conference play begins.
The other newcomer is George Mason transfer Luke Hancock, who sat out last season and is finally eligible to play. The 6-foot-5 Hancock is a complete forward who averaged 10.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game as a sophomore for the Patriots. He is a dangerous outside shooter and Louisville is counting on Hancock to pick up some of the offensive slack and add a legitimate perimeter weapon for when Peyton Siva drives the lane. Hancock has large expectations on his shoulders this season as the Cardinals’ offense will be under heavy scrutiny all season and Hancock is expected to improve that unit. If he has improved since his sophomore season, he is potentially an all-conference performer.
Whom to Watch: The Cardinals are loaded with talent and with players to watch. Center Gorgui Dieng blossomed on both ends of the floor last season and is a mortal lock to win conference defensive player of the year honors for the second-straight season. Point guard Peyton Siva hasn’t quite lived up to the vast expectations that followed him out of high school, but the senior is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country and the team’s offense will still rely heavily on Siva’s ability to break down opponents off the dribble. If he can cut down on the turnovers and improve his shot selection, he will be a favorite to win conference player of the year. The mercurial Russ Smith is already an impact defender having led the team in steals per game last season, but he could lead the conference in scoring if he becomes a more efficient and selective shooter. At the very least he is the best on the team when it comes to creating his own shot.
The other two players that are definitely worth keeping an eye on are a pair of sophomores that the coaching staff expects big things from this year and down the line. Bruising forward Chane Behanan (9.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG) was one of the conference’s best freshmen last season and is the perfect complement to Dieng in the frontcourt. He should see his numbers go up this season. The other super sophomore is 6-foot-5 Chicago native Wayne Blackshear, who has become a popular candidate to break out in 2012-13. Blackshear missed most of last season recovering from a shoulder injury but he impressed down the stretch including nine points in less than 15 minutes against Kentucky in the Final Four. Blackshear will have to fight for every minute he plays given Louisville’s crowded backcourt, but he is the team’s most talented and versatile offensive weapon and if he becomes the offensive threat everyone expects him to, Louisville might become the most complete team in the country.
Predicted Finish: It is hard to call any team a lock to win in a conference as deep as the Big East, but on paper, Louisville is heads and shoulders above the rest of the field. Almost every team has multiple questions swirling as they enter this season, Louisville’s only question is where the offense will come from, and they have the pieces to answer that question resoundingly. Of course, expectations come with their drawbacks, such as the target that will be on their back all season and the pressure that comes with trying to repeat last season’s success. Louisville has the veteran leadership and talent to overcome those drawbacks, plus they should have one of the more stifling defensive units in recent memory and teams will not like having to deal with all the fresh bodies Pitino and his staff will throw at them. Assuming their players continue to improve from last season, they can assume some sort of offensive identity, and the roster can stay reasonably healthy over the course of the season, Louisville will be the odds-on favorite to win the conference, and maybe even the national championship too.