Wednesday, October 26, 2011

2011-2012 Top 50 Countdown: No. 8 Louisville Cardinals

Over the coming weeks, we will be counting down our Top 50 teams in the country. Teams 26-50 will be posted in groups of five, while we will count backwards from No. 25 to the No. 1 team in the country. You can find a complete schedule of our 2011-2012 Season Preview coverage here. To browse through the rest of the Top 50, click here.

Last Season: 25-10, 12-6 (t-3rd Big East), lost to Morehead State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament

Head Coach: Rick Pitino

Key Losses: Preston Knowles, Terrence Jennings

Newcomers: Wayne Blackshear, Chane Behanan, Zach Price, Angel Nunez, Mark Jackson Jr.

Projected Lineup:

- G: Peyton Siva, Jr.
- G: Chris Smith, Sr.
- G: Kyle Kuric, Sr.
- F: Chane Behanan, Fr.
- C: Gorgui Dieng, So.
- Bench: Rakeem Buckles, Jr.; Jared Swopshire, Jr.; Zach Price, Fr.; Mark Jackson, Fr.; Elisha Justice, So.; Wayne Blackshear, Fr.; Mike Marra, Jr.; Stephen Van Treese, Jr.

Outlook: Louisville doesn't have a star on their roster. They didn't have one last year, either, but that didn't prevent the Cardinals from going out and winning 25 games and finishing tied for third in the toughest conference in the country. That's the way Rick Pitino likes his team. He's taken up the motto of "Louisville first" for his team's, and it makes sense -- at this point, Pitino has become a system coach. Louisville should be mentioned in the same breath as teams like Pitt and Wisconsin and Texas A&M. They aren't successful because they have more talent than their opponents. They are successful because the whole, the product that they put on the floor, is better than the individual parts wearing the jerseys.

What Louisville does is simple, really. They run a full-court press that is partially designed to try and force a turnover and partially an attempt to force their opponents to chew up the shot clock. They force a lot of turnovers and make their opponents take tough shots. Once the Cardinals get possession of the ball, they attack in transition, looking to get an layup or an open three. If nothing is there immediately, they'll pull the ball back out, spread the floor and allow their playmakers to create. They run a lot of high pick-and-rolls and they take a lot of threes, and when those threes are going down, the Cardinals are very tough to beat.

The engine that makes the Louisville machine run is Peyton Siva. While standing just 5'11", the junior point guard is one of the most explosive athletes in the country. He's tremendously quick with the dribble (when he's playing well, he's as difficult to stay in front of as Kemba Walker was) and can finish around -- and above -- the rim, but he's also excellent at finding open shooters and dumping the ball off to his big men when he finds himself in a crowd. His end-to-end speed is perfect for leading the Louisville break, and while his size is a bit of a hindrance, he's an excellent on ball defender due to his quickness.

Joining Siva in the back court will be Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith. Kuric is one of the best shooters in the conference and the leading returning scorer for the Cardinals. He's a perfect fit for this style of play, as he is a terrific athlete and a guy that is willing to defend any position on the court, perimeter or interior, despite standing just 6'4". Smith can also knock down an open three, but he's a better creator off the dribble than Kuric. Louisville will spend the majority of their time with (at least) three guards on the floor, and Kuric and Smith are a perfect compliment to Siva.

There is plenty of perimeter depth as well. Freshman Wayne Blackshear is the first name that must be mentioned. He's a high-profile recruit and a big-time scorer on the perimeter. He's battling injuries -- and was only recently cleared to play -- but when he is healthy he's a guy that will be capable of coming off the bench and putting up 20 points. Blackshear may end up cutting into the minutes that junior Mike Marra sees. Kevin Ware was ruled ineligible, but his loss won't even be felt as Russ Smith and Elisha Justice have both already spent a year in the system. Freshman Angel Nunez is a player to keep an eye on. The 6'7" wing has drawn some comparisons to Francisco Garcia.

The front court will be anchored by Gorgui Dieng, a 6'11" sophomore from Senegal. Dieng is the best shot-blocker on the team and should be an excellent replacement for Terrence Jennings, who left for the NBA a year early. Dieng needs to become a better rebounder -- as do the Cardinals as a whole, they finished in the bottom half of the country in defensive rebounding percentage -- and it would be nice if he can provide any kind of post presence offensively, but his role is to be an eraser around the rim. He should fill role role beautifully. Junior Stephen Van Treese will be the guy that spells Dieng in the middle. Van Treese had a better-than-expected sophomore season, and he even managed to work his way into the starting lineup for a handful of games. Freshman Zach Price should see time in the middle as well.

Who joins Dieng at the four will likely vary throughout the year. Freshman Chane Behanan, if he can get healthy (like Blackshear, he is battling some nagging injuries), will likely be the best option that Pitino has at the four. He's a burly, 6'7" combo-forward that will remind some of a slimmer Big Baby Davis. He's got a solid face-up game and the mobility and footwork to score in a variety of ways. His girth should allow him to compete on the glass. Rakeem Buckles and Jared Swopshire will also see time -- and their share of starts -- for the Cardinals this season. Both have started in the past, but are coming off of serious injuries. Buckles tore his acl after coming back from a badly broken finger, while Swopshire is still recovering from what was thought to be a potentially career-ending groin injury. They are lankier and more athletic than Behanan and should be better fits in Louisville's 2-3 zone. They also both have more extended range than Behanan.

Louisville has plenty of pieces. This issue is going to be keeping attitudes and egos in check. There are only so many minutes and so many shots to go around. If Pitino can get his team to buy into the idea that they can play 15-20 minutes off the bench, playing balls-to-the-wall defense and sprinting in transition, the Cardinals are going to be a tough team to matchup with. They should compete with UConn, Syracuse and Pitt for the Big East title.

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