Newcomer Chris Jones keys Louisville's repeat hopes
In a sport that loves its unpredictability, the last two NCAA Champions were relatively easy to predict before those seasons even started. In 2012, the argument that Kentucky's freshman inexperience would be a problem lasted for all of two weeks before the Wildcats trampled everything in their path en route to a wire-to-wire season as the nation's best team.
Last year, Louisville was seen as the contender with the fewest holes, and that held true as well. The Cardinals may have relinquished the No. 1 ranking a few times, but they remained most smart pundits' favorite to hoist the trophy in March. This season, the unpredictability is back. Kentucky has possibly more young talent than any other team in the history of college basketball, but experience is an issue. Michigan State has talent and experience, but inconsistency plagued them last year and remains a question mark. Florida and Arizona are both loaded with talent but have questions about ideal lineup personnel and outside shooting. For Louisville, assuming Chane Behanan is back in a uniform when the games start to matter, the primary question that needs answering is, "Can Chris Jones really replace Peyton Siva?"
Replacing Gorgui Dieng will be difficult as well, but Montrezl Harrell will slide into the starting lineup, and everyone has seen what he is capable of doing. Jones comes to Louisville with plenty of hype, but he has spent the past two seasons toiling away in obscurity at Northwest Florida State. His numbers were gaudy and he was named the Junior College Player of the Year, but junior college is still junior college, where the statistics and accolades can be easily discounted. This is the most competitive league of college basketball in the country and he is being asked to replace one of the team's most important players and lead the Cardinals to another National Championship.
The good news is that Jones doesn't seem to have any doubts about whether he can effectively replace Siva. "I can score more from outside. I can pass the same as [Siva]. He’s quicker than me, but we’re the same speed," Jones told The Louisville Courier-Journal at the team's media day. "I can score better. I shoot better. I can do more stuff on the offensive end and the defensive end than I think he did. ... Really, I don’t have holes in my game.”
While Jones might not have the same lightning-quick first step that Siva had, he is just as good a passer and playmaker and perhaps a better shooter and natural scorer. He also may not be quite as problematic for the opposition as Siva was defensively, but he is going to create a lot of turnovers and generally be a problem for opposing guards thanks to his quick feet and active hands. He is also, by all accounts, one of those insanely competitive types who is emotional but effective in crunch time.
If he can be the type of player everybody thinks he is, the Cardinals should be considered a front-runner to repeat. But just because he is as talented -- if not more talented -- than Siva doesn't mean he has what it takes to replace the heart and soul of last season's team. Siva had his offensive deficiencies, but part of what made him such a great point guard was that he understood his own team's dynamics. Few players picked their spots better than Siva. He knew when to push the pace and when to rein in his more excitable teammates. He knew when to jump-start the offense with penetration and when to let the play run its course. He wasn't perfect, but he was the perfect floor general for last season's Cardinals -- a selfless veteran who didn't need the ball but always seemed to have it anyway.
There is nothing wrong with scoring ability and exuberance, both of which Jones has in abundance, but the Cardinals don't need another Russ Smith hoisting questionable shots and pushing the ball at breakneck speed every trip. They need a point guard in the most traditional sense, someone who can run the offense without making silly mistakes. Jones will have help if he needs it. Freshman Terry Rozier has plenty of his own accolades, and Kevin Ware and Smith will probably handle the ball as well. But if the Cardinals are going to compete with the Wildcats and Spartans and Gators and the rest to cut down the nets in Arlington, they will need Jones to take the ball and run with it ... literally.