October 13, 2012; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino talks with white squad forward Chane Behanan (21) during the first half of play in the Red-White Intrasquad Scrimmage at the KFC Yum! Center. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-US PRESSWIRE

Louisville Cardinals Basketball Season Preview

The college hoops season is right around the corner, and Busting Brackets is here to whet your basketball-starved appetite. Over the next five weeks, we are publishing season previews team by team, conference by conference, to offer a glimpse into the upcoming season. Busting Brackets is giving you the lowdown on the biggest storylines, offseason changes and x-factors for each team and each league as we roll into the 2012-13 season. Our complete season preview archive can be accessed here. Buckle up, peeps.

Louisville Cardinals

Last Season 30-10 (10-8 Big East)
Won Big East tournament
Lost to Kentucky in Final Four of NCAA tournament
Key Returning Players: Peyton Siva, G
Chane Behanan, F
Gorgui Dieng, C
Russ Smith, G
Wayne Blackshear, G/F
Key Additions: Luke Hancock, F (George Mason transfer)
Montrezl Harrell, F (Hargrave Military Academy)
Mangok Mathiang, C (IMG Academy)
Key Losses: Kyle Kuric, G
Chris Smith, G
Rakeem Buckles, F (Transferred to Florida International)
Mike Marra, F (ACL tear)
Jared Swopshire, F (Transferred to Northwestern)
Top Non-Conference Games: Nov. 22 vs. Northern Iowa (Battle 4 Atlantis, Bahamas)
Nov. 23 vs. Missouri or Stanford (Battle 4 Atlantis)
Nov. 24 vs. Duke/VCU/Memphis/Minnesota (Battle 4 Atlantis)
Dec. 15 @ Memphis
Dec. 29 vs. Kentucky
Top Conference Games: Jan. 19 vs. Syracuse
Jan. 26 @ Georgetown
Jan. 28 vs. Pittsburgh
Feb. 3 vs. Marquette
Feb. 9 @ Notre Dame
Feb. 17 @ South Florida
Mar. 2 @ Syracuse
Mar. 4 vs. Cincinnati
Mar. 9 vs. Notre Dame
Breakout Player: Luke Hancock. Hancock has not played a meaningful minute for his new team, but already Rick Pitino has earmarked the George Mason transfer as Louisville co-captain. Allow that to foreshadow the role Pitino and his staff will expect the junior to play on this year’s team. The do-everything forward will play a variety of hybrid roles for the Cardinals this season, filling in at point in back of Peyton Siva, spelling Wayne Blackshear at the 3 and even Russ Smith at the 2. Hancock is a natural forward, but his tremendous passing ability (averaged close to 30 assists per 100 possessions as a sophomore)) lends well to time at the point while his efficient shooting (1.49 points per shot as a sophomore) allows him to slide into the 2-guard spot as well. For a team that lacks appreciable depth and is in dire need of a perimeter threat, there might be no more important player on the ‘Ville than Hancock. He’s clutch (ask Villanova), can shoot, pass, board and handle the rock, and has a track record of disappointing Big East foes (again, ask Villanova). His right shoulder—injured in a pickup game during the spring—is finally pain-free, nearly six months after he underwent surgery on the shoulder. That’s not good news for rival Big East teams. The one piece Louisville sorely lacks—an experienced, jack-of-all-trades player who lengthens the bench and can fill multiple roles—is getting healthy just in the nick of time.
X-Factor: Outside Shooting. This will be a familiar refrain for Louisville critics, perhaps the most commonly repeated and scrutinized weakness of any team ranked in the preseason Top 5: the Cardinals can’t shoot. Louisville shot below 32-percent from behind the arc last season and must replace its top two 3-point weapons from that team. Good luck. Kyle Kuric (33-percent), who even had an off-shooting year last season, and Chris Smith (40-percent) leave a gaping hole on the perimeter for the Cardinals, one Russ Smith and Luke Hancock alone can plug. Peyton Siva flat out can’t shoot. For all his talents, he may be the worst outside shooting guard in America. Take out Kuric’s and Smith’s 143 combined 3-point field goals, and Louisville made just 90 as a team last season (2.25 per game). Worse yet, the Cardinals—excluding Kuric and Smith—shot just 27-percent from downtown as a team. That’s historically bad perimeter shooting. Winning without a dependable, or at least capable, long-ball threat is very tough, though not unprecedented. UConn, for example, shot just 33-percent from long-range during its 2011 championship season. But 33-percent could realistically dwarf what the 2013 Cardinals may shoot from behind the arc this season, especially if Hancock is still feeling any lingering effects from his injured shoulder(s). Siva and Blackshear aren’t becoming outside threats any time soon, and Russ Smith isn’t shedding his gunner label either, leaving the viability of Louisville’s perimeter offense on the broad, banged up shoulders of one Luke Hancock. That’s an awful lot of pressure for a guy who has yet to suit up in a game with his new team.
Almost as pivotal as outside shooting is the production Louisville will get out of its bench this season. The Cardinals can pit their starting-5 up against anybody in college basketball, Indiana included. The bench, which ostensibly seems flimsy, could ultimately make or break this highly touted squad. Louisville’s bench certainly doesn’t lack talent or potential star power. Its top two guys—Hancock and prized freshman and former Virginia Tech pledge Montrezl Harrell—should be two of the better bench weapons in college hoops. There just isn’t enough depth on it to speak of. The smooth-shooting Mike Marra will miss his second straight season with an ACL tear (and his absence cannot be overstated), rebounding bulwark Rakeem Buckles has since transferred to FIU after missing most of last season with a torn ACL and once valued utility man Jared Swopshire was all but forced into transferring (to Northwestern). Louisville runs no more than seven-quality-deep. Any other players thrust into the rotation will be out of necessity, not ability. The Cardinals can with a short bench. They’re top-seven is as good as there is in college hoops. But over a 31-game regular season grind and an equally taxing postseason thereafter, Louisville could be at risk to breaking down before it seizes the ultimate prize: a national championship.
Best Case: Depth? Who cares? Louisville doesn’t need an eighth or ninth man on the roster when its seven-man rotation is among the best in the sport. The Cardinals dance around the injury bug and ride their top-seven to a second consecutive Big East title. Despite all the love Georgetown’s Otto Porter is receiving in the preseason, Chane Behanan reminds pundits that he was the better of the two freshman forwards last season. Behanan has a breakout sophomore campaign, earning him a spot on the All-Big East first team. Wayne Blackshear builds off a strong finish to last season and fortifies the top frontcourt in the Big East. With Fab Melo gone, Gorgui Dieng shines as the premiere post defender in the league, but as importantly, flashes an improved offensive game. No longer does Dieng just score on easy dunks and put-backs. The rebounding and defensive maestro is also a more refined offensive post presence, helping to atone for the dearth of outside shooting. The Cardinals work inside-out, and the absence of reliable perimeter shooters proves moot. If you can avoid highlighting a weakness altogether, Louisville demonstrates, you can win despite that weakness. Hancock is one of the most valuable sixth men in all of college basketball and embraces the various roles Pitino gives him. Russ Smith is an improved (in terms of efficiency) outside shooter, and chuck-em-Russ cuts down on the ill-advised, low-percentage 3-point shots. The defense is superlative as usual, even better than last year’s elite defensive unit with Blackshear and Harrell factoring more in the rotation. Peyton Siva is the best point guard in the Big East, notching Big East POY honors by season’s end. The Cardinals win in hallmark, Louisville fashion: with game-changing, pressure D; exceptional rebounding; the top point guard-center combination in the league; and athletic, versatile and active forwards on both ends of the floor. Louisville parlays a strong non-conference showing (against a tough schedule) into Big East riches. After winning its second-consecutive Big East tournament, defeating Big East defectors Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse to do it (somewhere Rick Pitino is smirking), the Cardinals notch a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance and are poised for another Final Four run.
Worst Case: Depth? In the Big East? For a team that plays an aggressive, overplay defense and likes to press? Yeah, it’s semi-important. And a seven-man rotation is a championship recipe short on ingredients. Pitino regrets forcing Swopshire out while the losses of Marra and Buckles are equally pronounced in terms of importance. The Cardinals reverse their 2011-12 season storyline—when a mediocre team turned it on during the postseason (Big East and NCAA tournament)—posting a strong regular season but flaming out in the postseason. The lack of depth catches up to Louisville in the tournament, but the absence of shooting plagues the team all season long. Louisville shoots a Big East-worse sub-30-percent from 3-point range, becoming a transparent, all-too-predictable one-trick pony on offense. Opposing teams pack in their defenses, daring the Cardinals to shoot, thereby bolstering their interior defenses and safeguarding against Louisville’s bread and butter: inside play. No longer having to account for Chris Smith or Kuric (and there were teams—Syracuse, for one—who game planned against Kuric, not Siva or Dieng), defenses gang up on Dieng inside and hang back on Siva to deny dribble-penetration. Hancock is good, but not a program-changing transfer. His production slips in the Big East against bigger and better competition. The Cardinals defense is stout as always, but regressions in the half court offense overshadow just how tough their defense is. The Jekyll and Hyde Louisville team rears its ugly head again in 2012-13. Bear in mind that last year’s team, despite the strong finish, was far from a beast. The Cardinals owned their fair share of head-scratchers, including a loss to South Florida at home on Senior Night, a 31-point drubbing at the hands of Providence and two lifeless offensive showings against Syracuse. The Cardinals, at one point, also needed overtime to survive lowly DePaul. Louisville, at unpredictable times, relapses into the ugly periods that marred much of last season. All the preseason hype surrounding the Cardinals proves unwarranted, and Louisville is nothing more than a solid, unspectacular group tangled in a college basketball landscape with very few (if any) top-tier teams. Armed with the program’s third consecutive No. 4 seed in the Big Dance, Louisville embarks on a tournament run that more closely resembles the  2011 debacle (an upset loss to Morehead State) than the 2012 success story (Final Four appearance). For this Louisville team, a first round loss is as likely as a national championship (there’s probably not another team in America realistically capable of doing either). The Cards draw the short stick this go-around.
Projected Finish: Regular Season: 25-6 (14-4 Big East), 1st place Big East
Lose in Big East tournament championship game
NCAA tournament No. 2 seed

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