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Siva, Pitino look for repeat trip to Final Four
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The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals have arrived on newsstands all over the country.
To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.
We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 2 Louisville.
Last February nobody expected the University of Louisville to crash the Final Four, not after the Cardinals finished seventh in the Big East. Surprise, surprise. The Cardinals made it to New Orleans. Now many expect Rick Pitino’s team to make it back to the season’s final weekend.
A 31-point loss to Providence, a homecourt Senior Night loss to South Florida and a 49-point performance at Syracuse were all forgotten after Louisville won the Big East Tournament and backed it up by winning four NCAA Tournament games, including the West Regional final against Florida.
Most of the prime contributors return, led by Big East Tournament MVP Peyton Siva, the point guard, center Gorgui Dieng and powerful forward Chane Behanan. The Cardinals should also be healthier after losing four guys to injuries for at least 25 games.
Dieng is the center Louisville recruited after Fab Melo shocked Pitino by signing with Syracuse three seasons ago. Dieng returns as the most complete big man in the Big East, a guy on the brink of averaging a double-double (9.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg in ’11-12). He also topped four blocked shots per game.
Behanan is a sophomore who finished last season like a senior, averaging 13.2 points and 8.0 rebounds in five NCAA Tournament games while making 60 percent of his shots. He should team with his best friend, fellow sophomore Wayne Blackshear, to give Pitino the inside-outside blend the coach loves. Blackshear battled through surgery to both shoulders to finish with gusto, scoring nine points in Louisville’s season-ending loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals.
Blackshear and junior Luke Hancock will form a hybrid combo on the wing — both are capable of playing either small forward or shooting guard. Pitino has called Hancock, who sat out last season after transferring from George Mason, the team’s best player. Hancock was named a co-captain in April.
There should be plenty of depth, as long as the Cardinals stay healthy. Pitino expects Zach Price, a sophomore center, to be one of the team’s most improved players. Stephan Van Treese reconsidered his decision to transfer and is back on the team. Freshman Montrezl Harrell, a superb athlete, was a late addition after originally signing with Virginia Tech.
For more than three months, Siva battled through a difficult season. He sprained his left ankle in November. It was slow to heal. He lost confidence in his jumper. Opponents started playing him exclusively to drive.
On the eve of the Big East Tournament, Pitino showed Siva video of how Steve Nash played the point guard position, preaching the value of not forcing plays. The message registered. Siva was great in the postseason, improving his shot selection and leadership skills.
Pitino has called Russ Smith, his other starting guard, a player unlike anybody he has coached at any of his four college stops. Smith led Louisville in field goal attempts last season, although he only made 35.6 percent of his shots. That’s usually a losing formula, but Pitino was OK with Smith forcing the action because of the Cards’ erratic offense. Smith needs to remain a creative shot-maker, but keep learning to share the ball.
Kevin Ware should be the first backcourt reserve, but he did not make a 3-point shot last season. Pitino believes sophomore Angel Nunez will become a dependable 3-point threat, but Nunez only played 55 minutes last season.
The Cardinal faithful grumbled louder than they had in years after Louisville lost three of its final four games to finish the regular season 22–9. Eight straight postseason victories silenced the complaints and positioned Pitino to win another Big East championship and plan for another big March.
Siva finally figured out how to play winning point guard. Dieng and Behanan understand the requirements of blue-collar Big East basketball as well as any pair of frontcourt players in the league.
Here are three factors that will decide if Louisville will reach its considerable potential — health (especially of Blackshear), 3-point shooting and the maturation of Smith.
Louisville needs Blackshear to become the guy who can make plays late in the shot clock. Departed seniors Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith made 143 of team’s 233 3-pointers last season. Somebody — Hancock and Blackshear — must fill that void. And Russ Smith can’t keep taking all his crazy shots.
Athlon College Basketball Countdown So Far:
19. Notre Dame
15. San Diego State
14. North Carolina
11. NC State
10. Michigan State
8. Ohio State