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.
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
– 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.
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.