The Cardinals of Louisville (20-13, 11-7 Big East) finished tied for fifth in the Big East last season. They were dispatched in one game in the Big East Tournament, losing to Cincinnati 69-66. They then went to the NCAA Tournament where they were upset by the California Golden Bears 77-62 in round one. That was the worst showing for the Cardinals in their last four Big Dance appearances. In the previous three, they made it to the Elite Eight twice and went two and out in another. For Louisville to succeed this season they are going to have to see a lot of young guys and rookies step up quickly. If there’s one coach in college basketball who can make that happen, it’s the Cardinals’ Rick Pitino.
The frontcourt must makeup for the loss of center Samardo Samuels who averaged 15.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 1.1 BPG. Samuels, who was the club’s top rebounder and scorer, declared for the NBA but was not drafted. The Cardinals could use him this season. However, there are some good alternatives.
Junior center Terrence Jennings (6-9, 220 lbs., JR, #23, 5.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 0.4 apg, 13.2 mpg, .617 FG, .000 3PT, .550 FT), who was Samuels nackup, is the new starter in the middle. Jennings should be a big help on defense. Unlike Samuels, he’s a major shot blocker who is able to intimidate opponents. He’s got a good close shot, but must start to hit from beyond eight feet. Additionally, Jennings must improve as a rebounder. Along with putting up better stats, the center is needed as an on court leader. Basically, Louisville needs him to become a star or at least close to one.
Another guy who is expected to break out this season is small forward Jared Swopshire (6-8, 205 lbs., JR, #21, 7.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.3 apg, 25.0 mpg, .380 FG, .324 3PT, .840 FT). Swopshire is a consummate free throw shooter and a decent rebounder who must improve from the field. Both his field goal and three-point shots must be much more accurate. Last season, he put up double digits in scoring a dozen times. More of that is needed too.
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Raakeem Buckles (6-, 2 lbs., SO, #20, ppg, rpg, apg, mpg, . FG, . 3PT, . FT) returns for his second season. Most likely, Buckles will be the starting power forward. Although he’s a talented player, Buckles has to find consistency. He’s got good rebounding skills and a decent shot from within eight feet.
Although starting guards Jerry Smith (8.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.4 spg) and Edgar Sosa (13.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) are gone, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the team will be worse off. It’s true that they were both solid on offense and Smith offered some defensive chops, but their style was often shoot-first rather than set the play or make the pass.
The Cardinals have a new point guard—Peyton Siva (5-11, 180 lbs., SO, #3, 3.9 ppg, 0.8 rpg,1.8 apg, 11.3 mpg, .432 FG, .404 3PT, .610 FT). Siva is a major setup man, who loves to pass. The sophomore must learn to be disciplined on his passes while maintaining his creativity. His ability to improve and grow may be the biggest factor in this team’s success.
The shooting spot will be occupied by Preston Knowles (6-1, 190 lbs., SR, #2, 7.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 20.1 mpg, .357 FG, .292 3PT, .885 FT). Knowles has a good shot that last season was affected by a sprained wrist. It’s expected that a healthy Knowles will get back to showing better three-point accuracy. If he can’t find his touch, then Pitino has other options.
Two freshman may see important minutes at guard. Russ Smith is a solid scorer but must improve his passing. Elisha Justice brings excellent passing and distribution skills. Swingman Robert Sallie, a transfer from Memphis, comes to the Cardinals after hitting 43.8% of his threes. Additional help at guard could come from junior Kyle Kuric (6-4, 195 lbs., JR, #14, 4.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 0.4 apg, 13.9 mpg, .457 FG, .360 3PT, .625 FT).
If the Louisville Cardinals need to do one thing, it is improve their defense dramatically. The team was ranked 12th in the Big East in scoring defense as they allowed 69.8 PPG. In defending threes, the Cardinals were ranked 297th, allowing teams to connect 48.5% of the time. Opponents also hit 46.7% of their twos, which was 128th. Additionally, the Cardinals fouled too much as opponents garnered 22.9% of their points at the charity stripe. They did manage a 22.4% turnover rate, which ranked 57th. They were also better than average on the steal and in blocking shots. Still, just about every area needs better play.
Louisville’s offensive efficiency was ranked 23rd as they were at 113.8. They were 68th (51.4%) in effective field goal percentage. The offense did well on the boards earning a rebounding percentage of 38.9 (15th).
They shot well from two-point range, hitting 51.9% (32nd), but were weak from downtown, putting in 33.7% (192nd). The Cardinals earned 31.4% (68th) of their points from threes. That’s a very high percentage for a team that was relatively weak when it came to shooting from downtown. That will change with the changing of the point guard. Look for more twos from this club.
Head coach Pitino (572-210 in 24 years, 220-86 in nine years with Louisville) has a talented and athletic team that he says will play a high-pressure defensive style designed to cause turnovers and miscues. He knows that in order to compete at a certain level that his offense cannot do it all. There are too many offenses out there who are better and teams that can play defense, slowing down Louisville’s game.
Thus, as Pitino claims, the Cardinals will be playing a very different kind of basketball. Along with a new defensive scheme, the Cardinals will be passing more and setting up the open shot. There will be fewer bombs.
This is a team that is rich in NCAA Tournament history. The Cardinals have been to the Big Dance 36 times. They have won two championships—1980 and 1986. They have made it to the Final Four eight times, with their last appearance being in 2005. It was the first time they had gotten that far since they won it all in 1986. As head coach with Louisville that is Pitino’s claim to fame. It happened in his fourth season. The last two years he’s gotten them to the Elite Eight. If the head coach can guide the Cardinals to the Elite Eight or deeper this season that will be a major accomplishment.
In ranking the Louisville Cardinals 18th in the nation, you’ve got to consider their potential which is huge. Of course a major dilemma is the need for so many guys to step up. Still, the talent is there and more often than not Rick Pitino has been able to exploit the talent on hand. Fifth in the Big East is possible and a Sweet 16 appearance is attainable. If the Cardinals do hunker down and play some tenacious “D,” then the Elite Eight or better will be in the team’s near future.
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