No. 8: Louisville Cardinals

Leave a comment

Midnight Madness is Friday. So we’re kicking off our college basketball coverage with our men’s preseason Top 25. Look for five teams posted a day, all this week.

2010-11 record: 25-10 (12-6), 3rd in Big East (tied)
Lost in NCAA tournament first round

Coach: Rick Pitino, 245-96, 11th year (597-220 overall)

Last NCAA miss: 2006

2011-12 roster [click here]
2011-12 schedule [click here]
2010-11 team stats [click here]

The good: The Cardinals are healthy. Few teams dealt with more injuries last season than Louisville, which welcomes back a healthy Rakeem Buckles and forward Jared Swopshire, who missed all of last season with a groin injury. Both will vie for starting spots.

Even better? Those injuries gave others more playing time. That meant senior Chris Smith went from a former walk-on to starter and 3-point threat. Same for senior Kyle Kuric, who’s game isn’t as well-rounded as Smith’s but is a better shooter. And freshman Gorgui Dieng became a likely bench-warmer to shot-blocking menace.

Then there’s a fantastic group of incoming freshmen, led by guard Wayne Blackshear and forward Chane Behanan. They’ll be in the mix for starting spots and ample playing time

And leading them all is junior point guard Peyton Siva, who assumes Kemba Walker’s title as quickest guard in the Big East. He’ll create shots for others, for himself and torment defenses too slow to stop him.

The bad: There isn’t much to fret about … except that interior defense.

Louisville’s pressure defense did its usual thing in 2010-11: Created turnovers, harassed teams into poor shots. The result was one of the nation’s most efficient defenses, which usually resulted in easy transition baskets.

But one past that host of pressuring guards, opponents were able to score more easily and grab plenty of offensive rebounds. But hey, maybe that was Terrence Jennings’ fault. Regardless, if the interior defense, Pitino’s got a Final Four team.

The unknown: The freshmen might be more talented than guys like Smith, Kuric and Mike Marra. But those guys know Pitino’s system and play their roles within that system. Does Pitino stick with what’s worked or try his hand with guys who present a greater upside.

This is hardly the first time Pitino’s had loaded team. He’ll know how to manage the talent and any egos that emerge. The Cardinals have some decent tests before Big East play (Vandy and Memphis), but it’s mostly a batch of opponents that’ll let him find the right mix just before the real tests come along.

Counting down the preseason Top 25

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Leave a comment

Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Leave a comment

Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.