Few programs reflect the way the expectations game works in college basketball today better than Rick Pitino’s University of Louisville program. Big East coaches picked the Cardinals to finish eighth last season. They came in third. Twice, Louisville defeated Connecticut, the team that won the NCAA title. The Cards were the Big East Tournament runner-up.
Nice work. But it didn’t generate many high fives. Not after the Cardinals exited the NCAA Tournament with a first-round loss to Morehead State. As Pitino enters his 11th season at Louisville, that snapshot summarizes the anxiety percolating around the program. The Cardinals have been a force in the Big East, but they have not delivered in March as expected under Pitino, with only one Final Four trip in a decade.
This should be one of Pitino’s better teams, likely a top-10 group as well as a team that can win the Big East title. It should be a team that survives the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. And perhaps even the second.
Key Cardinals Stat: 8.8
The Cards ranked ninth nationally, making 8.8 3-pointers per game. With Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith back, they could be even better.
If the bench is the best motivator, Pitino won’t need to borrow from any Lou Holtz speeches this season. The Cardinals are two or three deep at all three frontcourt positions, led by small forward Kyle Kuric, who starts the season as the most dynamic walk-on in the nation.
A scholarship squeeze led Kuric to relinquish his for his senior season, even after he averaged nearly 11 points and shot 45 percent from the 3-point line. A fearless competitor, Kuric developed the confidence to trust his ability to score last season. And get this: Sometimes he shares his position with another talented walk-on — Chris Smith, who averaged 9.4 points and shot 40.4 percent from the 3-point line in his first season after transferring from Manhattan. Smith’s room and board is paid by his brother, Nuggets’ forward J.R. Smith. Chris Smith plays like he’s trying to convince the world that he’s more than simply J.R.’s baby brother.
Power forward will feature the most intense scrum for minutes on the team. Jared Swopshire started there two years ago but missed all of last season after surgery for a sports hernia. Rakeem Buckles began last season by hanging 17 points and 11 rebounds on Butler but missed 19 games with injuries. Freshman Chane Behanan is a McDonald’s All-American with a wide body and game that will remind Cardinals fans of Rodney McCray because of his fierce pursuit of rebounds.
Center is the spot that skeptics will be watching. Sophomore Gorgui Dieng averaged two blocks per game but must improve his scoring (5.7 ppg) and rebounding (4.4 rpg). Dieng, who grew up in Africa, has considerable skills but must learn to avoid silly fouls. Freshman Zach Price and junior Stephan Van Treese need to give Pitino 10 good minutes per game.
If the Cardinals have one player who must remain healthy, it is Peyton Siva, the junior point guard. Siva led the Cardinals in steals, assists and free throws made. He’s a dynamic and creative player who’s capable of scoring 15 points per game but would be happier averaging a dozen points and a half-dozen assists. His defense could use some work, but Siva is an upbeat force in the locker room. Freshman Kevin Ware will push sophomores Elisha Justice and Russ Smith for back-up minutes.
The second guard position lacks the clarity of the point with the graduation of Preston Knowles. Pitino once described Mike Marra as the best high school shooter he had ever recruited, but Marra made only 28 percent of his 3-point attempts last season. His inconsistent stroke leaves him vulnerable to losing his starting spot to freshman Wayne Blackshear, a thunderous scorer. Both Kuric and Chris Smith are capable of playing in the backcourt, too.
This is a team that has the parts to be a force in the Big East and beyond — from November into March. Eight players have started 10 games or more throughout their careers, and Blackshear and Behanan arrive as top-50 recruits with the confidence to contribute immediately. Kuric and Smith are dangerous 3-point shooters. Siva understands how to run a team and can attack the basket.
There are two questions this team must answer: Is Dieng ready to play 25-30 solid minutes per night in the Big East? And are there enough NBA-quality players, the kind of guys a team usually needs to get to the Final Four?
Big East Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Elite Eight