Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino directs his team against the Kentucky Wildcats during the first half of their men's NCAA Final Four semi-final college basketball game in New Orleans

Top 25 Countdown: No. 2 Louisville Cardinals

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 30-10, 10-8 Big East (7th); Lost in the Final Four to Kentucky

Head Coach: Rick Pitino

Key Losses: Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith, Jared Swopshire, Mike Marra, Rakeem Buckles

Newcomers: Montrezl Harrell, Mangok Mathiang

Projected Lineup:

G: Peyton Siva, Sr.
G: Wayne Blackshear, So.
F: Luke Hancock, Jr.
F: Chane Behanan, So.
C: Gorgui Dieng, Jr.
Bench: Montrezl Harrell, Fr; Russ Smith, Jr.; Kevin Ware, So.; Zach Price, So.

Outlook: The future is bright for the Louisville Cardinals. They are coming off of a trip to the Final Four, they have a loaded recruiting class coming in next season, their head coach just inked a deal to keep him in town until 2022 and, most importantly, the Cardinals are ranked higher than in-state rival Kentucky.

Louisville is a legitimate national title threat this season, and it all starts with their defense, where the Cardinals were the best team in the country last season, according to efficiency guru Kenpom. Using different variations of a 2-3 zone and a 2-2-1 zone press, the Cardinals were able to use the perfect combination of ball pressure on the perimeter and shot-blocking around the rim to make running offense a nightmare for opposing teams. They forced turnovers, they blocked shots and they didn’t allow open shots. In fact, there is ample opportunity for the Cardinal’s defense to improve, as they were ranked 230th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage.

With so many key pieces returning this season, it’s difficult to imagine Louisville having anything but an elite defense again this year.

The question marks lie on the offensive end of the floor.

Louisville was not a good offensive team last year. There were times, prior to the run they made in the month of March, that the Cardinals were downright bad on that end of the floor. They turned the ball over, they forced too many bad shots, and they couldn’t hit anything from beyond the arc. What’s worse is that the team that was 103rd in offensive efficiency a season ago loses the only two players on their roster — Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith — who were consistently efficient players on the offensive end of the floor. That’s worrisome.

What needs to be noted here is that there is room for interpretation within the numbers. Take Peyton Siva, for example. He entered last season with quite a bit of expectation, but he struggled mightily early in the year. But his play down the stretch — particularly in the month of March — was the biggest reason Louisville won the Big East tournament and made the Final Four. When Siva’s at his best, Pitino is able to run him off of high-ball screens and simply allow Siva’s talent to take over. If that Peyton Siva shows up this year, Louisville will be fine.

The other difference at the end of the season for Louisville was Wayne Blackshear. A highly-regarded freshman last season, Blackshear spent much of the year battling shoulder problems. He only played in 15 games, but while his numbers were limited (7.0 minutes and 2.5 points), he did show some flashes of serious potential. He’s a bigger wing and a guy that can score and, more importantly, shoot from the perimeter. His presence will provide more consistency for the Cardinals.

Joining those two on the perimeter will Luke Hancock, a versatile, 6-foot-5 wing that is eligible this season after transferring in from George Mason. Hancock can score, but what makes him special is his ability to be a playmaker on the wing, which should help take some of the pressure off of Siva. The exciting Russ Smith will also see plenty of action. Smith is a gunner through and through, to the point where, at times, his shooting and penchant for turning the ball over is almost a detriment. But he’s also good enough that when he gets going, he can drop 30. Sophomore point guard Kevin Ware will likely back Siva up.

Gorgui Dieng is the star of the Louisville front court. A 6-foot-11 athlete, Dieng is one of the best defensive centers in the country, and he’ll only get better as his offensive repertoire expands. He’ll be joined by two strong and explosive power forwards in Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell. Harrell will likely begin the year in the starting lineup as Behanan deals with some suspension issues, but both are threats to post a double-double on any given night. Expect Zach Price and Stephen Van Treese to see time as well.

Predictions?: Last year was a weird year for the Cardinals. They had a bunch of players taking on new and expanded roles, and it took them a few months to really embrace those roles and learn how to thrive in them. The question this season is whether or not those same players are going to feel pressure when asked to go from the hunters to the hunted. Louisville is going to have a target on their back every time they step foot on the floor. How will this team react? Because anything less than a Big East title and a return trip to the Final Four is going to be considered a disappoint in a town that’s overshadowed by their bigger, blue neighbors.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Before he won an Academy Award, Mahershala Ali played at Saint Mary’s

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  Actor Mahershala Ali accepts Best Supporting Actor for 'Moonlight' onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in the film ‘Moonlight’ on Sunday night.

How does that tie into college basketball?

It’s simple: Ali played college basketball for four years at Saint Mary’s, from 1992-1996.

Now, this was before Saint Mary’s turned into the Saint Mary’s that Randy Bennett has built. At the time, Ernie Kent was the program’s head coach, and the teams that Ali — whose used his given last name of Gilmore at the time, although he was already using the shortened version of his first name, Mahershalalhashbaz — played on weren’t really all that good. They finished under .500 in the WCC three of the four season, finding a way to finish in a tie for second place in his junior year.

As a senior, Ali averaged 7.0 points for the Gaels.

This would probably make Ali the most famous player that Kent has ever coached. He’s more famous than Aaron Brooks, who had about two good NBA seasons, and he’s definitely more famous than Luke Ridnour, who is best known either for getting traded four times in a week or being name-dropped in a song by the rapper Wale, who bragged about being able to turn ‘Ducks into Bucks [like] Luke Ridnour.’

 

VIDEO: Tom Izzo’s touching senior day tribute to Eron Harris

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Eron Harris #14 of the Michigan State Spartans kisses the midcourt logo on senior day during the second half of the college basketball game against the Wisconsin Badgers at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
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Eron Harris suffered a career-ending knee injury in a game at Purdue earlier this month, meaning that he would not be able to take the floor for his Senior Day.

Tom Izzo made sure to rectify that, as he called a timeout with just 12 seconds left in Michigan State’s win over No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday, giving Harris a chance to go out to the center of the court, get a standing ovation and give the Spartan logo a smooch.

He was also greeted by the Wisconsin team. All around great moment:

Nick Ward-led Michigan State beats No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Nick Ward #44 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates during a game against the Wisconsin Badgers in the second half at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Nick Ward had 22 points and nine rebounds, Miles Bridges had 17 points and Matt McQuaid added a season-high 15 to help Michigan State beat No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74 on Sunday.

The Spartans (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten) have won six of their last eight games, moving them into a third-place tie in the conference and perhaps sealing their spot in a 20th straight NCAA Tournament.

The Badgers (22-7, 11-5) have lost four of five and lost a chance to pull into a first-place tie with No. 14 Purdue.

Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes scored 22 points, Bronson Koenig had 17 and Zak Showalter added 15. Ethan Happ fouled out with eight points, more than six points below his average for the Badgers.

Michigan State went on an 11-1 run midway through the second half, building a 12-point lead that it was able to maintain unlike a big lead in the first half.

In the first half, the Spartans led 36-23 only to allow the Badgers to come back with a 15-4 run to pull within a point at halftime.

Michigan State’s Cassius Winston had 10 points and eight assists and Joshua Langford had nine points.

In the last game of the season at Breslin Center, senior guard Eron Harris checked in late in the game a little more than a week after he had a season-ending knee injury. Harris, with a brace on his right knee, went to center court and kissed the Spartan logo to follow a senior tradition Shawn Respert started in 1995.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been shooting poorly and it is catching up with them. They were held to 43.1 percent shooting against Michigan State, a ninth straight game of connecting on 44 percent or fewer of their shots. They made 13 of 25 free throws at Michigan State after shooting 67 and 57 percent from the line the previous two games.

Michigan State: The Spartans are surging at the right time and are gaining confidence perhaps allowing them to position themselves for better seeding at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

POLL IMPLICATONS

With Wisconsin’s losses at Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers will likely plummet from No. 16 in The Associated Press poll on Monday.

UP NEXT

Wisconsin: The Badgers end the regular season at home, hosting Iowa on Thursday night and Minnesota on Sunday.

Michigan State: The Spartans close on the road, playing Illinois on Wednesday night and No. 24 Maryland on Saturday.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Update: Creighton’s Watson turns himself into police

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 31: Injured guard Maurice Watson Jr. of the Creighton Bluejays looks on during the game against the Butler Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse on January 31, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Creighton defeated Butler 76-67. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Update: Later Sunday, Watson turned himself into the Douglas County Jail, a law enforcement official told the Omaha World-Herald. Watson’s attorney told the paper that Watson was driving back to Omaha from his native Philadelphia and was slowed by the snowstorm that hit parts of the country this week.

Law enforcement has been unable to arrest Creighton guard Maurice Watson since a warrant for his arrest on the charge first-degree sexual assault was issued last week, according to police.

“The U.S. Marshals Service and the Omaha Police Fugitive Unit continue to look for Mr. Watson,” Omaha Police said in a statement Sunday. “At this point in time, Mr. Watson is dodging law enforcement efforts to arrest him.

“Until he is located and arrested by law enforcement, or turns himself in, the entire Douglas County Court system is operating off of Mr. Watson’s time frame.

“Neither OPD nor the Douglas County Attorney’s Office is part of any specific arrangements for Mr. Watson to turn himself in.”

Watson was accused by a 19-year-old acquaintance, who reportedly is also a Creighton student, of sexual assault in the bathroom of an Omaha residence around 3 a.m. on Feb. 4. A report was filed later that day.

The point guard was in the midst of a banner season for the Bluejays before he tore his ACL in January, which ended his collegiate career. Creighton announced on Feb. 13 he was suspended from the team and not allowed to participate in senior night act due to  “alleged actions that are contrary to university policies and core values.”

The warrant for his arrest was issued Thursday.

 

Seventh-ranked Louisville dominates Syracuse

Rick Pitino
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The hint arrived early that Louisville might be no kind of matchup for Syracuse when the Cardinals jumped out to a quick 11-2 lead. The Orange, though, appeared to steady and seemed intent on delivering an interesting Sunday afternoon and a maybe another resume-changing win after beating Duke earlier in the week as the roared back to take a lead.

Everyone should have taken the early hint.

Louisville used a 21-4 first-half run to gain separation and never looked back as the Cardinals dominated Syracuse, 88-68, on Saturday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center.

The win was the fourth in five games for Louisville, which shot 56.9 percent from the floor and held the Orange to 35.7 percent shooting.

Donovan Mitchell was sensational, going for 25 points on 9 of 16 shooting, including 6 of 10 from deep, while also grabbing five rebounds and dishing out four assists. It was his third-straight game with at least 20 points.  He also had an absolutely dynamic one-handed alley-oop late that was just fantastic.

The Cardinals showed no ill effects of a hangover stemming from the loss earlier this week at North Carolina, but instead it was as dominant a performance as they’ve had in weeks.

On the losing side of the ledger are the Orange, who looked to be building some momentum after a three-game losing streak by beating Duke on Wednesday. Then, the Blue Devils went and lost to Miami and Syracuse just got smashed by another ACC contender. That doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.

For Syracuse, it looks destined to spend another Selection Sunday sweating, though there’s certainly enough time for it to go either way. The Orange can really only hurt themselves until the ACC tournament with Georgia Tech heading to the Carrier Dome this week. That’s a game Syracuse will need to win, lest they really want the pressure ratcheted up in Brooklyn.

A big part of the issue for Syracuse pinning its hopes on the ACC tournament is its total lack of depth. Tyler Lydon and Andrew White both went at least 40 minutes for the 11- and 10-straight games, respectively. Syracuse played seven and got 28 minutes total from its bench.

With a few days typically between days, that’s pretty sustainable for the regular season, but those minutes are sure to weigh on players going on back-to-back (and maybe longer) days.