|Kyle Kuric :: Jim Owens/Icon SMI |
Last year was a strange season for Rick Pitino's Louisville program. Big East coaches picked the Cardinals to finish eighth last season. They came in third. Twice, Louisville defeated Connecticut and the Cards were the Big East Tournament runner-up.
Nice work, but it didn't generate much praise. Not after the Cardinals lost to Morehead State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. As Pitino enters his 11th season at Louisville, that snapshot summarizes the anxiety percolating around the program. The Cardinals have been a force in the Big East, but they have not delivered in March as expected under Pitino, with only one Final Four trip in a decade.
This should be one of Pitino's better teams. The Cardinals are two- or three-deep at all three frontcourt positions, led by small forward Kyle Kuric, who starts the season as the most dynamic walk-on in the nation. He averaged nearly 11 points and shot 45 percent from the three-point line. Sometimes Kuric shares his position with another talented walk-on, Chris Smith, who averaged 9.4 points and shot 40.4 percent from the three-point line in his first season after transferring from Manhattan.
Power forward will feature the most intense scrum for minutes on the team. Jared Swopshire started there two years ago but missed all of last season after surgery for a sports hernia. Rakeem Buckles began last season by hanging 17 points and 11 rebounds on Butler, but missed 19 games with injuries.
If the Cardinals have one player who must remain healthy, it is junior point guard Peyton Siva. Siva led the Cardinals in steals, assists and free throws made. He's a dynamic and creative player who's capable of scoring 15 points per game, but could use some work on his defense. Freshman Kevin Ware will push sophomores Elisha Justice and Russ Smith for back-up minutes.
Pitino once described Mike Marra as the best high school shooter he had ever recruited, but Marra made only 28 percent of his three-point attempts last season. His inconsistent stroke leaves him vulnerable to losing his starting spot to freshman Wayne Blackshear, a thunderous scorer.
This is a team that has the parts to be a force in the Big East and beyond. Eight players have started 10 games or more throughout their careers, and Blackshear and Behanan arrive as top-50 recruits with the confidence to contribute immediately. Kuric and Smith are dangerous three-point shooters, while Siva understands how to run a team and can attack the basket.
But there are two questions this team must answer: Is Dieng ready to play 25-30 solid minutes per night in the Big East? And are there enough NBA-quality players, to get to the Final Four?
Chane Behanan (F, Fr.): Established himself as a top player nationally at the NBA Player Association camp.
Wayne Blackshear (G/F, Fr.): Was a force in the Chicago Public League for three seasons.
Mark Jackson, Jr. (G, Fr.): Redshirted last season.
Angel Nunez (F, Fr.): Is a shooter who grew up idolizing former Card Francisco Garcia.
Zach Price (C, Fr.): Will need time to develop low-post moves.
Kevin Ware (G, Fr.): De-committed from Tennessee after Bruce Pearl was fired.