- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Louisville
1. With the possible exception of Indiana, there is no team in the country we know more about -- who they are and where they’ll excel -- than Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals. That’s what happens when you go on a magical March run, first through the Big East tournament, then to the Final Four, just before falling short to that insane Kentucky team (not that there’s any shame in that). That's what happens when the lion’s share of that team returns the following season. If Indiana isn’t ranked No. 1 to begin the season, Louisville will be. Because there’s nothing preseason rankers like better than continuity.
And we know this cast of characters well. Peyton Siva will reprise his role as the lightning-quick point guard. Russ Smith will be back in his trademark erratic-but-somehow-effective combo-guard spot. Gorgui Dieng is the intimidating defensive presence in the middle of the floor (who might be the nicest guy in the country off it). Chane Behanan is the slightly flashier power forward with more than a few go-to post moves. Even sophomore shooting guard Wayne Blackshear, who spent much of the 2012 season injured and really only emerged during the NCAA tournament, is a relatively known entity.
For any Cardinals fans worried the postseason run was just a trick of small sample size, the good news in all this lack of turnover is that all of these players can still improve. Blackshear could be a big-time offensive force on the wing. Siva and Smith, who both posted offensive ratings in the low 90s, could both become much more efficient scorers. Dieng is still barely scratching the surface of what he can do on both ends of the floor, but especially on offense. And Behanan is a potential star in the making.
Usually, when teams return this many veteran players, I’m inclined to believe that they are what they are. (See: 2010–2012 Vanderbilt Commodores). In Louisville’s case, that baseline is already incredibly high. Even scarier is the thought that all of these well-known returners could still get better.
2. Here’s another 2012–13 Louisville Cardinals certainty: This team is going to defend like crazy. Per Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency metrics, the 2011–12 Cardinals’ 84.0 defensive efficiency rating was the lowest in the country (coincidentally, the first time in three years Florida State didn’t own that distinction), and the Cards only got more difficult to break down as the season entered its most crucial stage. Here’s a fun stat: From Feb. 23 to March 23, Louisville didn’t allow a single opponent to score more than a point per possession. That includes the tail end of the Big East season, the entire Big East tournament, and the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament. Not until Florida (when Bradley Beal went nuts) and Kentucky (and, well, it was Kentucky) did Louisville yield more than a point per trip to an opposing team. That’s ... kind of insane.
Louisville’s defense could be complicated at times. Pitino switched his defensive schemes throughout the tournament, which particularly befuddled Draymond Green’s No. 1-seeded Michigan State Spartans. But for the most part, the blueprint was simple: Siva and Smith would relentlessly pressure the ball, everyone would pressure shooters, and Dieng and Behanan would protect the rim at all costs. It worked. And it will work again in 2012–13.
3. Louisville’s offense was, and is, a different story. More stats: The Cardinals finished ranked No. 103 in the country in efficiency last season, No. 243 in effective field goal percentage, No. 211 in turnover rate and No. 177 in free throw rate. You get the idea. With the exception of the offensive glass where they ranked No. 51, this was a mediocre offensive team at best.
Smith, bless his wacky soul, had a lot to do with that. Despite that 91.5 offensive rating and a 30.6 3-point field goal percentage, Smith led the Cardinals by a wide margin -- and finished in the top 10 nationally -- in both usage rate and his percentage of Louisville’s available shots. Smith made the shots when it counts, and Pitino has long since embraced the one he calls Russdiculous, but there’s no question Smith will have to become more efficient if he plans on hoisting so frequently in 2012–13. Siva, Louisville’s second-most-used player, will have to do the same. (The Cardinals run a ton of high pick-and-rolls for Siva, but there’s little reason for defenders to fight through the screen, rather than playing under; Siva is not a frequent or accurate 3-point shooter.)
But again, there is reason to expect improvement. Behanan will take on a larger role in the offense. If Dieng’s low-post game becomes merely passable, he’s a weapon unto himself. And Blackshear, a top recruit who rarely got to show his ability thanks to injury as a freshman, has a chance to emerge as one of the best sophomores in the country.
The expectations are high. Louisville will begin the season ranked No. 1 by many, and No. 2 or No. 3 by others. Offensive improvement would justify that ranking; balance would make this team utterly lethal. But even if you’re bearish on the Cardinals’ 2012–13 offense, you should be bullish overall. That defense has already shown the way.