For the second straight year, Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals had their season end in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament; this time at the hands of 13th-seeded Morehead State. With several core players returning, the Cardinals are expected to be a top-10 team in 2011-12 though an injury to McDonald's All-American Wayne Blackshear lowers their fortunes a bit.
Point guard Peyton Siva will play a vital role in Louisville's success this season. He is a playmaker who gets after it on the defensive but needs to cut down on his turnovers. Elisha Justice and Russell Smith will compete to serve as Siva's backup. Smith is hoping to bounce back from an injury-riddled freshman campaign that limited his effectiveness.
Kyle Kuric is a three-point assassin and will start on the wing. He provides valuable leadership, and Pitino has mentioned the possibility of Kuric even seeing some minutes at this four this season if the Cardinals chooses to go with a smaller lineup. Chris Smith will step into the starting lineup to replace Preston Knowles. Smith is a physical, athletic off-guard who can also stroke it from deep.
Mike Marra thinks he is a sharpshooter and has shown that ability at times (like he did late last season against my Marquette boys in the Big East Tournament which is why I would happily punch him in the face) but has been marred by inconsistency. 243 of his 293 field-goal attempts at Louisville have been from beyond the arc. However, Marra has only connected on 26.7% of those tries. If he can cut back on his streakiness, he will be a major weapon off the Cardinals' bench. Freshman Angel Nunez does not appear ready to be a role player right away and likely ends up the odd man out of the rotation.
Highly-touted freshman Wayne Blackshear was expected to be a major factor on the wing this season as well, and it was originally thought he would miss all of his freshman campaign due to a shoulder injury. After successful surgery however, Blackshear could be back by the start of conference play, which would add a major boost on the wing.
Gorgui Dieng brings a defensive presence to the middle, averaging almost two blocks in less than 16 minutes per game last season. He is still raw on the offensive end but could be a force in the paint if he improves in that area. Stephan Van Treese is an energy role player who brings his effort and physicality to the floor. He is battling a knee sprain but is expected to be healthy for the start of the season. Freshman Zach Price will also factor into the equation if he can show consistency and aggressiveness on the glass.
With Rakeem Buckles still recovering from knee surgery that will likely sideline until the start of conference play, freshman Chane Behanan seems like the favorite to start alongside Dieng. Behanan is a bit undersized at 6-foot-6, but very physical down low and also has decent range on his jump shot. Jared Swopshire returns from a groin injury that cost him all of last season. He started as a sophomore but figures to come off the bench this year.
Connecticut and Syracuse are the teams to beat in the Big East with Louisville and Pittsburgh nipping on their heels. The Cardinals' full-court pressure will always make them a difficult opponent and capable of beating any team on any night. It is finding consistency on the offensive end that will determine just how good Louisville will be this season.
Player to Watch: Peyton Siva, PG
The 5-foot-11 point guard made a solid step from his freshman to sophomore season but will need to take an even bigger step this year. His quickness on the floor is obvious and Siva has serious springs as he can rise above the rim. For him to reach his potential, Siva needs to become a better decision-maker and more reliable outside shooter.
Interesting comparison. If the excuses are true then I'd say this could definitely be the next Jay Cutler. Like a lot of athletes with talent and a drive to win, they can forget that they play on a team with egos/emotions and that it only takes one comment to throw shadow on dedication to one's task at hand. Comments about team or based in criticism can undermine the most heart-felt warrior and actually distract you with doing the two things they all strive for: improving and winning.