Here are my observations from a recent practice at Louisville, which will open the season ranked No. 2 nationally.
1. Talented experience
Talent is everywhere on this squad and it hits you immediately at the start of practice. The Cardinals are strongest at the two most important positions on the floor (point guard and center). Peyton Siva has worked hard on his game this summer as he attended the Chris Paul point guard camp. He put a lot of time into his 3-point and mid-range game and will be called upon to produce and lead this club through the ups and downs of a long season. Gorgui Dieng has continued to develop under Rick Pitino, who is one of the game's best teachers. With a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Dieng blocks and changes many shots while challenging everything in the lane. In breakdown drills against a live defender, he displayed the post position, footwork and hands to score with his back to the basket. His jump hook over his left shoulder is now his move. He is a major factor at both ends.
2. Frontcourt depth
Starting with the frontcourt, the overall size is impressive -- the Cards' length is astounding. All six post players can play. After Dieng, Chane Behanan is powerful and polished inside. He establishes a low center of gravity that puts any defender at a disadvantage. He also possesses strong hands to rebound the ball and soft hands to score it. He's always capable of producing a double-double. Stephan Van Treese is healthy and ready to challenge in practice and give them some valuable minutes when needed. Center Zachary Price continues to make steady progress while freshman Montrezl Harrell has been contributing in many phases. Harrell came in as a super athlete who plays with great energy. His body has changed since he arrived on campus in the summer and his skill level also has made good strides. "He has been getting better with his footwork," Pitino said. "He has a soft touch, but he just needs to slow down."
Siva runs the show and is the engine that makes the car go. Electric in transition with the ball in his hands, he puts defenses on their heels. In the halfcourt set, he organizes his team and is looking to distribute while always ready to score. He's improved his jumper and is a major threat in pick-and-roll action. Russ Smith is always on the attack and can put points up quickly with his jumper or drive. His experience will be a plus in big moments of big games, as he knows how to get his shot off.
4. X factors
Luke Hancock, a transfer from George Mason, has a good basketball IQ with the skills to match the knowledge. Hancock sees the play and can be a facilitator with his passing or drain open shots to stretch out a defense. He knows where he needs to be on the floor and makes any offense function more efficiently. Kevin Ware provides such elite athletic ability with the mindset of a high-level scoring guard. He's been performing well in workouts as Pitino called him a "pleasant surprise." Ware possesses tremendous speed and explosion in the open floor, he can lead the fast break or be the finisher. Wayne Blackshear came to campus with high accolades from high school, but was out most of last season with surgery on his shoulder. He now looks physically strong and his timing is good as he is now ready for battle as he provides perimeter firepower as a big guard type who can also post up and create fouls on defenders.
Having a point guard from a Big East tourney title and Final Four team is a great place to start for leadership. Siva said he led the team throughout the summer while on campus. "This year feels different already because we have more depth," he said. " Practice and workouts have been very competitive." But the ultimate leader is Rick Pitino, a future Hall of Fame coach and a master teacher who really develops his players from an individual standpoint. From start to finish, he emphasizes roles and responsibilities. His energy is high and he is always instructional rather than critical. At the same time, if the coach senses anyone is not working to his maximum, he will let him know immediately. A big part of coaching a team is to connect with the players and know what they need and when they need it. He has the pulse of his team before they even reach November and can navigate them to great heights this season. "This is a hungry group," Pitino said. "It is my job to keep them humble."