The most scoring-friendly rule changes of college hoops' modern era could have a profound effect on the defending champs. Hand- and forearm-checking will now result in automatic whistles, and no team's guards are more difficult to defend without making contact than Louisville's Russ Smith and Chris Jones. Yet no team's defensive identity will be more challenged by the heightened scrutiny of physical on-ball pressure than the Cardinals'.
Coach Rick Pitino's aggressive, 94-foot matchup press helped force turnovers on 27.0 percent of possessions last season, second in the nation only to VCU; Smith had 83 steals and specialized in bumping and fleecing ballhandlers. "I'm trying to make him more of a steal off-the-ball guy this year," Pitino says, the theory being that fewer attempts at pocket pickings -- and more pickoffs of rushed passes -- will keep Smith on the court. What Pitino will not consider is dialing back the press. "We're not going to change the amount of pressure," he says. "We're just going to move our feet even more."
Opponents rarely moved fast enough to check Smith last season, when he had 9.1 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, the third-best rate of any starting guard in the country. And his new sidekick, Jones, made even more trips to the line, generating an estimated 10.7 foul shots per 40 as a sophomore at Northwest Florida State. The two speedsters were already a pain to contain; when asked if the Cards' guards can be kept out of the lane under the new rules, Jones shakes his head and says, "I really don't think so." The rule change should permit more freedom of movement, but in what could be a tough transition year, will Louisville foul itself out of the national title race, or foul out everyone else?
The Cardinals' toughest games come before the New Year: They'll (likely) face North Carolinfa in the Hall of Fame Tipoff final Nov. 24, and then travel to Kentucky Dec. 28. Their first two March Saturdays (at Memphis on the 1st, vs. UConn on the 8th) should decide the AAC title.
Player To Watch: Montrezl Harrell
A late-blooming, high-motor big man who relieved Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng during the Cardinals' title run, Harrell could become their featured frontcourt player as a sophomore. His 20-point, seven-rebound explosion (in just 24 minutes) against Syracuse in the Big East tournament title game was a glimpse of what he could do in a bigger role, and his strong showing as a starter on the U.S.' gold-medal winning Under-19 World Championships team this summer had NBA scouts talking about him as a possible Lottery Pick in 2014.
Telling Number: 55.8 percent
Luke Hancock's three-point percentage in March and April last season, after shooting 33.9 percent from November-February. When the games mattered most, he was cold-blooded from long-range.
Q&A with Head Coach Rick Pitino
SI.com: On defense, you used to funnel a lot of drivers toward Gorgui Dieng, who was a great shot-blocker. What happens now with your defense?
Pitino: Mango [redshirt freshman Mangok Mathiang] is a good shot blocker. He's a better shot blocker than Gorgui was as a freshman. But he's not a better player than Gorgui was as a junior, and he's replacing Gorgui as a junior.
SI.com: Why is everyone so bullish on Montrezl Harrell?
Pitino: When he steps on the court you see incredible energy, and also the wingspan and physical ability to take advantage of that energy. He's worked hard on his midrange jump shot and is getting better at it. When he came in he was about as raw of a player as you could find; he really had no offense. He was just a 6-foot-8 strong body that could get up and down the floor, and had very poor ballhandling, shooting and passing skills. So now you take that activity, that body, make it stronger, and add in the evolution of his skills, and you've got one of the premier power forwards in college basketball.