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
“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
“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.”