This preview and more on Louisville and the AAC are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
No. 2 Louisville Facts & Figures
Last season: 35-5 (14-4 Big East)
Postseason: NCAA champion
Coach: Rick Pitino (310-111 at Louisville)
American projection: First
Postseason projection: NCAA runner up
The leading scorer, Russ Smith, is back. The Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four, Luke Hancock, is back. The breakout player of the postseason, Montrezl Harrell, is back. The Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino, is back.
No wonder then that the expectations are back at the University of Louisville. Most teams that win the national championship start leaking players to the NBA before they schedule their victory parade — the way Kentucky did in 2012. Not so at Louisville.
“It’s kind of unusual to see back-to-back championships won in any state; it doesn’t happen throughout history very often,” Pitino says. “We’re looking for one of us to try and make it three in a row. We’ll be more excited if it’s Louisville rather than Kentucky, but we’ll see how it plays out.”
Related: Q&A with Louisville's Russ Smith
The biggest question for Louisville is the status of Chane Behanan. The starting power forward played his best basketball in the Final Four, scoring 15 points with 12 rebounds in the title game against Michigan. Behanan was suspended indefinitely in mid-October, and Pitino all but closed the door on his season. However, last week, Pitino said he was pleased with Behanan’s progress.
Can a team contend for a national title with a 6-8 center? Pitino believes that it’s possible. That’s one reason why Montrezl Harrell is expected to move from forward to center after having a solid summer leading the USA Basketball U19 team to a gold medal in Prague. The other reason is that center Gorgui Dieng was a first-round pick in the NBA Draft.
If Harrell can’t handle the move, Pitino has two other options. Stephan Van Treese has added 15 pounds of upper-body weight and has four years of experience in the Pitino system. Mangok Mathiang was not eligible last season but is a lean, dynamic shot-blocker who needs offensive polish.
In December, Louisville fans groaned every time Hancock missed a shot. He did not listen. He kept shooting. People stopped groaning and started wondering if there was a better shooter in college basketball. There wasn’t, at least down the stretch. Hancock made 15-of-26 3-pointers during the Cardinals’ last eight games.
Now that he’s proven he can stay healthy, Wayne Blackshear is the veteran Louisville player most likely to show the most improvement because he can shoot.
Pitino loved Peyton Siva as much as any player he has coached at Louisville. Loved his leadership, grit and lack of ego. Siva is gone, but Pitino believes that the Cardinals’ guard play could be even better this season.
Smith is the primary reason. At least one statistical analytics formula ranked Smith as the best college player last winter, because he reduced his turnovers while increasing his assists and shooting percentage. Smith averaged 18.7 points per game and is the perfect option to create something out of nothing at the end of the shot clock. Smith strongly considered skipping his senior season for the NBA but decided to return and work on becoming a more complete player.
Not that Smith has to play point guard. Pitino signed Chris Jones, a junior college All-America from Northwest Florida State College. Jones committed to Tennessee in high school.
“This is a very, very strong backcourt,” Pitino says. “Our practices are going to be outstanding. They both bring their own brand of toughness — New York toughness for Russ and Memphis toughness for Chris.”
The scramble for playing time will be intense. Newcomers Terry Rozier and Anton Gill arrive with the advantage that they played together last season at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy. The unknown is Kevin Ware, who suffered the horrific compound fracture to his right leg in Louisville’s Midwest Regional win over Duke. All the medical reports on Ware have been good, and he should be cleared to play by October.
Chris Jones is an unrelenting defender whom Rick Pitino asked to dial it down during summer workouts. Anton Gill arrives with a solid 3-point shooting stroke. Terry Rozier is considered a more fearsome scorer because he is relentless attacking the rim. Akoy Agau needs to reshape his body and is probably a year way. Mangok Mathiang is raw offensively but demonstrated superb shot-blocking skills in practice while sitting out last season.
Factoid: 27. Louisville forced a turnover on 27 percent of its opponents’ possessions last year. Only VCU (28.5 percent) was better.
The repeat thing is not easy. Ask Kentucky. Or Connecticut. Or North Carolina. Florida and Duke are the only teams that have succeeded since 1973. But like those Gators and Blue Devils teams, Louisville has many of its most important players back. Smith is a prime National Player of the Year candidate. Hancock is a mature fifth-year guy who understands winning. Behanan and Blackshear were McDonald’s All-Americans who must convince skeptics they belong in the NBA. Chemistry will be critical. Siva and Dieng made certain the 2013 champs were ego-free. The newcomers will have to embrace that philosophy.
2013-14 Preseason Top 25
4. Michigan State
8. Oklahoma State
10. North Carolina
11. Ohio State
14. New Mexico
15. Notre Dame
25. Wichita State