UT-Martin-Louisville Preview

Coach Rick Pitino said coming into the season this Louisville

team is as talented and as deep as he’s had in a decade.

Many agree, the Cardinals are ranked ninth in the preseason poll

heading into their opener Friday night against Tennessee-Martin.

They are expected not only to contend in the Big East, but also

make a run at a ninth Final Four appearance.

Three starters and 11 lettermen return for the Cardinals,

including point guard Peyton Siva (9.9 ppg, 5.2 apg) and senior

wings Kyle Kuric (14.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and Chris Smith (9.4 ppg, 4.6

rpg). They’ll likely be joined by center Gorgui Dieng and freshman

power forward Chane Behanan to round out the starters.

But injuries have derailed the Cardinals’ depth and the

frontcourt is especially thin.

Louisville suffered a major blow two weeks ago when the school

announced freshman Wayne Blackshear will miss the season with a

torn right labrum. The 6-foot-5 wing was expected to figure

prominently in the rotation and replace some of the scoring lost

from last year’s leader, Preston Knowles.

The frontcourt has been hit hardest.

Rakeem Buckles will miss another 4-6 weeks after tearing his

right ACL on Feb. 27. Stephan Van Treese has not practiced this

fall after straining his left patellar tendon. Jared Swopshire, a

starter in 2009-10, missed all of last year with a groin injury and

has yet to return to the player he once was.

Guards Elisha Justice, Tim Henderson and Russ Smith have also

missed time.

“That starting five, they’re ready to go, especially at the

offensive standpoint,” Pitino said. “The next five, it’s been very

difficult getting them ready.”

Siva was named to the preseason All-Big East second team but

Pitino said Dieng, a 6-foot-11 sophomore from Senegal who averaged

5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds last year, is the one player his team

can’t afford to lose. Dieng played at 212 pounds last season but

has come into this season at nearly 240.

Behanan joins Dieng upfront. Pitino has high praise for his

6-foot-6 freshman from Cincinnati.

“He’s as good a freshman as I’ve coached since (Jamal) Mashburn

in terms of talent,” Pitino said after Behanan led the Cardinals

with 16 points in their first exhibition. “That’s about as good a

statement as I can possibly say. So I’m very pleased with his

attitude, very pleased with his game.

“But he is a freshman and he has to learn.”

Behanan and Swopshire each scored 14 points in the Cardinals’

final preseason game, an unimpressive 62-54 win over reigning

Division II champion Bellarmine last Thursday.

Behanan and his teammates will be tested early and often this


The Cardinals play 16 games against teams that made last year’s

NCAA tournament, including out-of-conference tests against No. 2

Kentucky, No. 7 Vanderbilt and No. 11 Memphis. The Big East

schedule brings No. 4 Connecticut to Louisville and home-and-home

matchups against No. 5 Syracuse and No. 10 Pittsburgh. Louisville

must also travel to No. 21 Cincinnati and No. 22 Marquette.

“We are talking a lot about our schedule and how we have to be

ready very early on for probably one or two of the most difficult

schedules in the nation,” Pitino said. “They know that. We don’t

talk about expectations though.”

The first game, though, isn’t expected to pose much of a


Tennessee-Martin is coming off a 12-21 campaign and enters this

season without one player who has more than one year of Division I

experience. The sophomore trio of Terence Smith, Mike Liabo and

Troy King is expected to lead the Skyhawks after combining to

average more than 31 points last season.

Tennessee-Martin, which lost its two games against ranked teams

last season by a combined 82 points, fell 78-51 at Louisville in

2005 in the only meeting between these programs.

A summer trip to the Bahamas allowed the Cardinals to pick up 10

extra practices that Pitino said was crucial in preparing for the

grueling schedule. The only solace comes from 14 of Louisville’s

first 15 games at home. A trip to Butler on Nov. 19 is the

Cardinals’ only 2011 road test before a New Year’s Eve game at


Pitino said he’s enjoying coaching more now as he nears his

600th collegiate victory for three reasons. His team’s throwback

attitude that turned last year’s “bridge year” into an unexpected

25-10 season where they nearly beat eventual national champion

Connecticut in the Big East tournament final has continued.

The coach is trying to savor what could be the last year with

the current Big East lineup, one he calls the best in basketball.

And he knows there may not be many more chances to contend for a

national championship.

“You have to have more passion now because you know your window

is going to close some day,” the 59-year-old Pitino said. “So you

have to enjoy it more and more, whether it’s six, seven, eight

years, whatever it may be.”