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2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 3 Louisville Cardinals

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 35-5, 14-4 Big East (t-1st); Won the National Title

Head Coach: Rick Pitino (13th season at Louisville: 310-111 overall, 137-67 CUSA/Big East)

Key Losses: Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva

Newcomers: Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, Akoy Agau, Anton Gill

Projected Lineup

G: Chris Jones, Jr.
G: Russ Smith, Sr.
F: Luke Hancock, Sr.
F: Stephen Van Treese, Sr.
C: Montrezl Harrell, So.
Bench: Terry Rozier, Fr.; Wayne Blackshear, Jr.; Akoy Agau, Fr.; Mangok Mathiang, So.; Kevin Ware, Jr. Chane Behanan, Jr.*

They’ll be good because …: Well, they’re really, really good. Russ Smith is back for a senior season in which he should once again shine. For all the criticism that Smith gets for being Russdiculous, the fact of the matter is that he posted an offensive rating 108.9 despite posting a usage rate of 32.0%. For those that aren’t well-versed in advanced analytics, that means that Smith was quite efficient on the offensive end of the floor despite being one of the most high-volume shooters in the country.

He’s not alone, either. Final Four MOP Luke Hancock is back for his senior season while Montrezl Harrell returns for what many expect to be a huge sophomore year. Chris Jones is a former top 50 recruit that spent the past two seasons winning titles and earning individual accolades as a JuCo point guard at Northwest Florida State. Terry Rozier did a prep year at Hargrave Military Academy last season and is expected to have an immediate impact off the bench. Wayne Blackshear should finally be healthy and in shape this season. Even Kevin Ware is expected to be back in the lineup by the time Louisville starts playing games that matter.

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AP photo

But they might disappoint because …: Losing Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng is going to hurt more than people realize. Siva was this team’s leader a season ago. He was the coach on the floor, the guy with the ball in his hands in crunch. He was also a terrific on-ball defender and, along with Smith, made this team so tough to score against. Most importantly, Siva was a calming influence alongside Russdiciulous, which is a factor that cannot be underrated. Jones may be talented, but he’d be hard-pressed to provide the same presence and leadership on the floor that Siva provided.

Harrell should be able to replace the scoring and the rebounding that Dieng provided last season. Where Dieng’s graduation will hurt is as a shot-blocker. Part of the reason that Louisville could put so much pressure on the ball is that they knew they had an eraser at the rim if they hadn’t to get beat on the perimeter. Harrell’s a junkyard dog and a potential first-team all-AAC player, but he’s not the same kind of defensive presence. Dieng also proved to be a good passer, which helped Louisville, who lack some perimeter shooting, against zone defenses they went up against.

There’s no replacement for talent, which Louisville has plenty of, but Siva and Dieng were indispensable pieces that made Louisville’s lineup fit together.

Outlook: Obviously, the x-factor for this Louisville team will be the presence of Chane Behanan. If you’ve forgotten, Louisville’s starting power forward — who averaged 9.8 points and 6.5 boards a season ago — was suspended indefinitely from the team earlier this month for issues he has off the court. when Pitino initially announced the suspension, he made the situation seem dire; that Behanan may not actually be able to work his way back onto the team. More recent comments have made it seem like the big fella can be back in the lineup before the Cardinals play Kentucky (on 12/28), perhaps before the end of November.

Louisville is a national title contender with or without Behanan. But without him, the Cardinal’s just don’t have all that much front court depth. Harrell will be a beast this season, I think every prognosticator will agree. But after that? Stephen Van Treese? Akoy Agau? Mangok Mathiang? Kentucky’s sixth-best big man, Derek Willis, is better than those three.

Maybe I’m cynical, but I expect Behanan to be back in the lineup sooner rather than later, which means that the Cardinals will be a serious contender come March.

Wisconsin ends No. 2 Maryland’s 27-game home win streak

Wisconsin forward Vitto Brown (30) shoots during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Maryland, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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Just over a month ago Wisconsin lost at Northwestern, dropping to 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten and had the look of a team that would have to fight simply to get into the NIT. Since then, Greg Gard’s Badgers have won seven straight games with the most recent triumph being a 70-57 victory at No. 2 Maryland. Not only did Wisconsin become the first Big Ten team to beat the Terrapins at the Xfinity Center since Maryland joined the Big Ten, but they also ended Maryland’s 27-game home win streak.

And it was Wisconsin’s offensive balance that stood out, as four starters scored in double figures led by forward Vitto Brown.

Brown, who accounted for 18 points and five rebounds in Wisconsin’s win over Nebraska Wednesday night, was even better against Maryland as he scored a career-high 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting from the field and grabbed seven rebounds. While Bronson Koenig (16 points, six rebounds, five assists) and Nigel Hayes (14 and six rebounds) are the ones expected to shoulder much of the load, players such as Brown, Ethan Happ and Zak Showalter (11 points) will also be key as Wisconsin makes its push for an NCAA tournament bid.

In Wisconsin’s first five conference games Brown averaged 4.4 points and 1.8 rebounds per contest. Since then he’s averaging 11.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, scoring in double figures in each of Wisconsin’s last three games.

Overall Wisconsin’s looked far more fluid offensively during this win streak, and over the last three games the Badgers have shot very well from the perimeter as they made nearly 51 percent of their attempts (12-for-26 against Maryland). Add in Wisconsin’s ability to take advantage of Maryland’s defensive rebounding issues, converting 13 offensive boards into 20 second-chance points, and it was easy to see why Wisconsin was able to grab control of the game in the first half during a 20-0 run that gave them the separation they needed.

Maryland’s issues throughout conference play remain the same, as they struggled to end defensive possessions while also turning the ball over far too often (seven times) during the aforementioned Wisconsin run. With Melo Trimble not playing at the level he’s capable of reaching (he may not be completely healthy), Maryland has some things to address during this stretch run.

But more than anything, Saturday was the product of a Wisconsin team that’s starting to click at the right time. And as crazy as it may seem, given how Wisconsin began Big Ten play, the Badgers only two games out of first place.

No. 5 Xavier finds shooting touch in 74-57 blowout at Butler

Xavier head coach Chris Mack talks with James Farr (2) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Butler, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Indianapolis. Xavier won 74-57. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) No. 5 Xavier learned its lesson.

To keep winning, it must continue do the dirty work.

Four days after stumbling at Creighton, the Musketeers got back to basics and used a balanced offense and a smothering defense to run away from Butler 74-57 on Saturday.

“We played much better today and after about the first four or five minutes, we defended,” coach Chris Mack said. “Our shots were, in my opinion, really good ones because we got in the lane, we made the extra pass and I thought that was the difference.”

Whatever the explanation, the Musketeers (22-3, 10-3 Big East) certainly looked worthy of the highest ranking in school history.

After making a season-low 30 percent from the field and just 1 of 21 3-point attempts in Tuesday’s loss, Xavier rebounded by shooting 56.9 percent and going 9 of 18 beyond the arc. J.P. Macura led the way with 13 points while Edmond Sumner and Remy Abell each had 12.

But the biggest improvements showed up in other areas – defense, rebounding and effort. They allowed 36 points over the final 31 1/2 minutes.

“Everybody was boxing out and rebounding, and on the offensive end we have so much talent we could get whatever we wanted,” said Abell, who started his college career playing for the Indiana Hoosiers.

The difference was obvious.

Butler (17-8, 6-7) was held almost 25 points below its season average.

Kelan Martin, with 15 points, and Andrew Chrabascz, with 12, were the only players to score more than 10. And the top three scorers – Martin, Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones – were a combined 11 of 39 from the field as the Bulldogs’ three-game winning streak came to an end.

Xavier crushed the Bulldogs so thoroughly that chants of “Let’s Go X” resounded throughout sold out Hinkle Fieldhouse over the final minutes.

“We didn’t have near the effort, the juice, the purpose defensively and we didn’t move the ball offensively and that was actually the case from the opening minute,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “We mentioned that in the four-minute media and said that had to improve and when it doesn’t these things happen.”

Butler used a 9-0 first-half run to take a 21-13 lead midway through the first half.

Xavier answered with a 27-6 run that included four 3s and a three-point play in a 27-6 run to make it 40-27. The Bulldogs got as close as 47-39 early in the second half, which later became a seven-point deficit after a replay review gave Dunham a 3.

But the Bulldogs couldn’t get closer.

“You can go 1 for 21 one game, and then the next game it’s – I’m sure it was better,” Macura said. “That’s basketball.”

POINTERS

Xavier’s dominance showed up in two key stats on the box score. The Musketeers outscored Butler 36-14 in points off the bench and 36-18 in the paint despite having only two offensive rebounds. Xavier has won six of its last seven.

ON THE ROAD

Even the road has been kind to the Musketeers this season. They have won seven times in true road games, their highest season total since 2010-11. They have also won five Big East games on the road – more than they won in either of their first two seasons in the league and they have won 10 of the last 13 at Hinkle.

MOVING UP

Dunham continues his ascent on the Bulldogs’ career scoring list. After moving from 14th to sixth on the list in the first 23 games this season, Dunham moved passed Lynn Mitchem (1,798) for fifth and within one point of A.J. Graves (1,807) for fourth. Matt Howard is third (1,939) and the only 2,000-point scorers in school history are Chad Tucker (2,321) and Darrin Fitzgerald (2,019).

TIP-INS

Xavier: Former Indiana prep star Trevon Bluiett had 11 points and four rebounds and James Farr had 12 rebounds. … Each of Xavier’s 22 wins has come by at least seven points. … The Musketeers were the highest-ranked team to play at Hinkle Fieldhouse since No. 3 DePaul visited Feb. 23, 1981.

Butler: Shot 33.3 percent overall and was 8 of 22 on 3s. …. The Bulldogs only have three wins at home against Top 10 teams – No. 8 Gonzaga in January 2013, No. 3 Michigan in 1965-66 and No. 5 Tennessee in 1958-59. … Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence attended the game.

UP NEXT

Xavier hosts No. 20 Providence on Wednesday.

Butler hosts Creighton on Tuesday.