Monday, October 17, 2011

Inside The Big East: Louisville

The great Rick Pitino brings back all but two players as Louisville enters upcoming season as one of favorites in Big East. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

With Big East media day just two days away, it's time to shift the scene from one legend to another after profiling Jim Boeheim and Syracuse 24 hours ago.

Louisville Cardinals (2010-11 Record: 25-10, 12-6 Big East)
Head Coach: Rick Pitino (11th season at UL, 225-96; 597-220 overall)
Returning Starters: G Kyle Kuric (6-4 Sr., 10.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 51% FG, 45% 3pt, 76% FT, 1.2 APG)
G Peyton Siva (6-0 Jr., 9.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 45% FG, 68% FT, 5.2 APG, 2.0 SPG)
G Chris Smith (6-2 Sr., 9.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 46% FG, 40% 3pt, 68% FT, 2.5 APG)
Other Key Returning Players: F Rakeem Buckles (6-7 Jr., 6.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 48% FG, 61% FT, 1.5 APG)
G Mike Marra (6-5 Jr., 6.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 32% FG, 79% FT, 2.0 APG)
C Gorgui Dieng (6-11 So., 5.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 62% FG, 54% FT, 1.9 BPG)
F Stephan Van Treese (6-8 Jr., 2.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 70% FG, 31% FT)
F Jared Swopshire (6-8 Jr., DNP in 2010-11)
Key Losses: G Preston Knowles (14.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 38% FG, 38% 3pt, 81% FT, 3.1 APG, 1.9 SPG)
F Terrence Jennings (9.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 53% FG, 66% FT, 1.9 BPG)

More than one coach in the country is brutally honest when analyzing his own team, but none match the candor brought to the table in every interview Louisville head man Rick Pitino gives. This style was no further evident than in the aftermath of the Cardinals' round of 64 NCAA Tournament loss to Morehead State. When brought in by CBS as a guest studio analyst for the round of 32, Pitino was asked about the final play in which Morehead State hit a three-pointer to give them the win. "The coach had a dream, I had a nightmare," was Pitino's response to the sequences that led to Louisville's earlier than expected demise from the Big Dance.

After a 25-win season in which Pitino's Cardinals were ravaged by enough injuries to the point where the team managers were used in practice, Louisville comes back this season with three returning starters and nearly all of its bench from the previous season. Guard Preston Knowles and forward Terrence Jennings are the only departed players from last season, and their productivity will not be easy to replace. Nonetheless, the versatile and deep Louisville rotation should account for those two losses and offset the impact early on in the season.

After serving as a spot starter for each of the last two seasons, sharpshooter Kyle Kuric becomes a full-time starter as he enters his senior campaign, and should step into the shooting guard role vacated by Knowles almost immediately. Kuric has made a career of being an opponent's nightmare since his coming-out party against Syracuse in the 2008-09 season as a sophomore, and shot a staggering 45 percent from long range a year ago. Former Manhattan College transfer Chris Smith will join Kuric off the ball while Peyton Siva runs the point. Siva battled inconsistency in his sophomore season, one that saw the Seattle native average nearly six assists per game. A full season of being a Big East point guard is now under his belt, and it should enhance his on-court awareness on both sides of the ball. In addition to the aforementioned trio, junior Mike Marra will also see significant time in the Louisville backcourt.

Jennings may be gone up front, but sophomore center Gorgui Dieng remains. The Senegalese big man is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Big East, averaging just under six points and nearly two blocked shots in his rookie season. In addition, junior Rakeem Buckles returns from injuries that limited him to just sixteen games a year ago, the last of which being a torn ACL. Steve Van Treese returns to provide depth to an inside corps that welcomes promising 6-8 freshman Chane Behanan, who scored 20 points in the Cards' first intrasquad scrimmage Friday night before leaving with a sprained ankle. Louisville's biggest return, however, will be that of Jared Swopshire, who comes back after missing all of last season with a groin injury that was surgically repaired. Swopshire averaged over seven points and six rebounds in his last on-court action during the 2009-10 season, his sophomore campaign.

Louisville opens their season with a homestand at the Yum! Center, which enters its second season as the Cardinals' home court and was proudly described to me by Pitino as the "finest arena ever built" when I asked about it at last year's Big East media day. Louisville first welcomes Tennessee-Martin on November 11th, with Lamar and new coach Pat Knight coming to the home of the twin spires two days later. The Cardinals have only one nonconference road game this season; but it is a big one, as Louisville heads to Hinkle Fieldhouse to renew their recently created rivalry with reigning two-time national runner-up Butler and coach Brad Stevens, who opened the Yum! Center a year ago.

A November 22nd meeting with Arkansas State follows, with Ohio University and star point guard D.J. Cooper invading Louisville on the day after Thanksgiving. Big West favorite Long Beach State meets the Cardinals on November 28th before Vanderbilt comes in on December 2nd as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge in what should be an early-season matchup of two Top 10 programs. Nonconference games against IUPUI and Northeast Conference opponent Fairleigh Dickinson, who now features former Cardinal George Goode, are next for Pitino and company before Josh Pastner, Will Barton and Memphis come into the Yum! Center on December 17th.

College Of Charleston and Western Kentucky are the last nonconference home opponents for Louisville, which opens its Big East ledger at home against Georgetown on December 28th. Following the conference clash with the Hoyas, the Cardinals head into Rupp Arena for what will be an admittedly hostile New Year's Eve showdown with Kentucky in a rivalry that has been escalated even further following Wildcats head man John Calipari's comments at "Big Blue Madness," when the coach neglected to mention Pitino, who won a national championship in Lexington back in 1996, among the many bright spots in Kentucky basketball history.

The Cardinals open 2012 inside Madison Square Garden against Steve Lavin and the youngest team in St. John's 104-year history before returning home on January 7th to meet Notre Dame. Providence welcomes Louisville into the Dunkin' Donuts Center three days later before the Cards open a home-and-home series against DePaul at the Yum! Center on January 14th. Two road games against Marquette and Pittsburgh, the latter of which opens a home-and-home series at the Petersen Center, follow on Louisville's slate before Villanova comes into the Bluegrass State to square off against Pitino's team on January 21st.

The Cardinals return to the East Coast on January 28th when Pitino disciple and Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard welcomes them into the Prudential Center, with Rutgers and Connecticut opening February for Louisville with home games at the Yum! Center. A trip to Morgantown to face West Virginia on February 11th precedes the first of two matchups with Jim Boeheim and Syracuse, who travel to Louisville two days following the Cards' clash with Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers.

The back end of a home-and-home with DePaul opens a two-game road trip that also includes a trip to Cincinnati to face a Bearcats team led by former Pitino assistant Mick Cronin. From there, Louisville plays its last two home games of the season, first against Pitt in the back end of a home-and-home series before entertaining USF on senior night at the Yum! Center on February 29th. The Cardinals' final regular season contest comes on March 3rd against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in what could very well be a battle for a double bye in the Big East tournament, which tips off on March 6th inside Madison Square Garden.

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