231 days have passed since Louisville fell to Kentucky in the Regional Semi-Final to the University of Kentucky in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
Louisville HOPES the 2014-15 season will end in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of the 2015 Final Four. UofL is no longer the reigning national champions, and an era truly ended this past spring. In the Cards post-game locker room after being eliminated Mangok Mathiang & Anton Gill went through the locker room and shook every departing senior & junior’s hand. Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Tim Henderson, Stephen Van Treese, and even Montrezl Harrell.
But Harrell didn’t declare for early entry into the NBA Draft and has returned as a unanimous pre-season All-American selection at the Power Forward position. Harrell’s non-declaration provided Louisville with a bit of a bridge and gives the Cards one of the best players in the country and perhaps the best Power Forward. Harrell has worked on his jumper, but his true game is intimidation at the basket. The Incredible Hulk on a basketball court.
There is no Russ Smith, but there is Terry Rozier. Rozier spent the summer getting better and by all accounts could be a 1st round NBA Draft selection after this season. Rozier went long stretches without a turnover last season and was a reliable rebounder. This season Louisville needs Rozier to assert his game further and be a reliable scorer.
Chris Jones is got his exposure into major college basketball last season and lost weight in the off-season. Rick Pitino has raved about the added quickness & endurance for his point guard. Jones has outstanding hands and fit perfectly in Louisville’s backcourt dubbed by Kevin Ware as “Turnover City” as Jones recorded 73 steals in his initial season of college basketball. Jones now must run the offense for the Cards in a less manic state than the past two years with much of the offense going through Russ Smith. Jones must avoid the cold shooting nights and recognize when he needs to do more…….like get to the foul line.
Louisville’s Backcourt of Chris Jones & Terry Rozier is one of the best units in the nation. Both players have produced and gained experience a year ago, but both players must take a leap forward in 2014-15 for the Cards to not suffer a drop-off.
It is Wayne Blackshear’s last go around. It’s his last chance to show the basketball world that he is the same player that came out of Chicago that was coveted by nearly every team in the nation. Wayne is no longer in Luke Hancock’s shadow, and Wayne took the summer and stayed in Louisville to work on his game. The Cards need Wayne to play himself into an NBA worthy Draft selection. Blackshear doesn’t need to have a 1st round season, but rather a year where teams take a chance on Wayne in the 2nd round. Blackshear has a knack for having big games against lesser teams and disappearing when the bigger opponents come around……the first big game…..TONIGHT…..will show us whether or not this is the same Wayne Blackshear that we’ve seen for 3 years or not.
At Center, Mangok Mathiang is the emotional center of the Cardinal basketball team. Mathiang is in his 3rd year in the program after redshirting his initial year at UofL and all eyes are on him to see if Mangok can make a leap in his game similar to Gorgui Dieng’s freshman & sophomore years. Realistically, Louisville needs Mathiang to be a presence in the lane and rebound
The Cards need to find answers on the bench. There are no proven options that will come from the Cards reserves but there is a great deal of potential. Anton Gill will be needed, especially with incoming freshman Shaqquan Aaron still awaiting NCAA eligibility. Gill has been in the program a year but watched mostly from the sideline behind Russ Smith, Terry Rozier, Luke Hancock, and Wayne Blackshear. Anton has a great attitude, a nice stroke, and is more athletic than most people realize and UofL is going to need his game right away.
Chinanu Onuaku is the most ready to play freshman on this Louisville roster. Brother of Arinze Onuaku (New Oreleans Pelicans), Nanu immediately took to the Cardinals conditioning program and got into shape. Onuaku is young and just recently turned 18 and his game is as unpolished as you might expect. Onuaku is longer than Stephan Van Treese and will provide more shot-blocking than SVT. But the offensive game, the hustle, and the (lack of) free throw shooting are relatively the same. Onuaku will grow as the season progresses.
The last player we can really equate into a player that will see significant time right now is Quentin Snider. Louisville NEEDS Snider to be a reliable option off the bench to give Rozier & Jones a chance to rest during games. Right now, Pitino isn’t happy with Snider’s defense, but always says that is typical of all of his freshman.
Right now Louisville is looking at an 8-man rotation. But that could change when Shaqquan Aaron is cleared and/OR if Freshman Jaylen Johnson, Anas Mahmoud, and Matz Stockman come into their own. Aaron’s game is ready to contribute and it is just a matter of time before the big men trio makes an impact. Akoy Agau is still working through his sports hernia surgery and has yet to display any sign that he is the player that Rick Pitino needs him to be.
The Gophers are starting Year 2 of the Richard Pitino era on Friday. UM had a nice run last season in the NIT and were robbed of the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota matches up well size wise against the Cards in the Armed Forces Classic at the US Air Base Borinquen in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, but Louisville clearly has more talent on paper. The initial line on the game is -8.5 for the Cards and it is hard to come up with an argument that will give the Gophers the victory.
But…….we’ve seen Louisville come out of the gate slowly in the opening weeks of the season. The Cards have a lot of new faces, a short & unproven bench and just lost two very huge offensive pieces in Russ Smith & Luke Hancock. Maybe it takes UofL time to adjust to like without Russdiculous and 3 to the Dome, but I think the Cards roll on 72-62.
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