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.

VIDEO: Shane Richards’ shot lifts shorthanded Manhattan

Shane Richards
Associated Press
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Thanks to injuries and the departure of Jermaine Lawrence, the beginning of the season has been difficult for Steve Masiello’s Manhattan Jaspers. Entering Wednesday’s game against George Mason, which was coming off of a surprising run to the Charleston Classic title game, with just six available players the Jaspers looked to pick up their first win of the season.

And Manhattan was successful, with a Shane Richards three-point play with 1.1 seconds remaining being the difference in their 69-67 win at Draddy Gymnasium. Below is video of the game-winning play, courtesy of Manhattan Athletics.

Richards (13 points) was one of three Jaspers to reach double figures, with Rich Williams leading the way with 26 points and nine rebounds and Thomas Capuano adding 14 points. What also helped the Jaspers was the fact that they forced 25 George Mason, converting those opportunities into 24 points.

Not sure if Manhattan and George Mason are due to play again next season, but the last two meetings have produced dramatic outcomes. The Patriots won last year’s game in Fairfax on a Jalen Jenkins’ 75-footer as time expired.

Video credit: Manhattan Athletics

UNLV hangs on for 72-69 win over No. 13 Indiana

Tom Crean
AP Photo
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LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) UNLV answered every run by Indiana, and the Runnin’ Rebels were able to hang through the frantic final seconds for a 72-69 victory over the 13th-ranked Hoosiers on Wednesday.

The game had the intensity of a February conference matchup and just enough mistakes to make sure it was November.

“One of the reasons we came to Maui, other than it was exciting for our fans, was to play against the best,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “See how we match up. See where we’re good. See where our deficiencies are, and now we’ll have all next week to practice.”

Patrick McCaw had 20 points for the Runnin’ Rebels (5-1), who bounced back from their opening loss to UCLA with wins over Chaminade and the Hoosiers (4-2), who leave Hawaii with just one win in three games.

“This is a test,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “The eight teams walking out of here, no matter what, in three days are getting tested. All right? Even if the champion tonight blows through it, whoever the champion is, they’re still getting tested because you’re playing three games in three days against very high level competition.”

Indiana trailed by 15 points in the first half and turned on some solid defense to get back in the game. The Hoosiers closed to 55-53 with 8:20 to play. The Runnin’ Rebels then went on a 12-1 spurt, with McCaw scoring seven of the points, including a run-closing 3.

“Coming in, we knew since Indiana is a great offensive team, we really had to lock down and play defense,” Ike Nwamu said. “It was really paramount for us to execute defensively.”

The Hoosiers weren’t done. They got within three points twice in the final 30 seconds. The first time was on a dunk by Thomas Bryant off a tremendous pass from a flying Yogi Ferrell. UNLV’s Jerome Seagears made both ends of a 1-and-1 with 13 seconds left to make it 72-67.

Max Bielfeldt’s drive for Indiana with 7.5 seconds remaining provided the final margin, but the game was far from over.

Nwamu missed two free throws with 7.1 seconds left, and Indiana gave the ball back to UNLV on a 5-second count on the inbounds. UNLV then threw the ball away on an inbounds pass. Nick Zeisloft’s 3-point attempt was partially blocked by Ben Carter, and Nwamu was fouled on the rebound. He missed both free throws with .8 seconds left, but all Indiana could get off was a heave that was well short.

“I knew my man set the screen. I knew they were looking for a 3,” Carter said of the blocked shot. “I saw Pat was trailing his man a little bit, so I knew I had to help. Luckily I was able to get the tip on the ball and it was a pivotal play.”

Crean said he wouldn’t change the play.

“That was excellent. They made an athletic play. But he did a good job taking the shot,” Crean said.

Carter and Nwamu had 16 points apiece for UNLV, and Seagears added 12.

“These kind of games, it’s so much about momentum,” Rice said. “It’s about a big stop here, a big basket here. We always focus on what happens at the end of the game. And that’s obviously critically important. … It’s an entire game. That’s why we focus on it’s every play throughout the course of 40 minutes.”

Zeisloft led the Hoosiers, who lost to Wake Forest in the final seconds in their opener, with 17 points, and James Blackmon Jr. had 13. Indiana had 21 turnovers that led to 22 points for the Runnin’ Rebels.

“We got ourselves in a hole at the beginning with our turnovers, and you’re not going to beat any type of team, let alone one as talented as UNLV, when you’re giving them 22 points,” Crean said. “It’s unacceptable with the guys that have the ball in their hands for us to be giving the ball that way, and we’ve got to get that fixed. We really do, or we’ve got to fix the lineup.”