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Friday, July 29, 2011
Summer Buzz: Louisville Cardinals

By Eamonn Brennan

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: the Louisville Cardinals. Insider

Here's why previewing teams in the summer can be so difficult: Until we get to the season, we have no idea what teams can really become. The 2011 Louisville Cardinals are a perfect example.

Last season was supposed to be a holdover year for Rick Pitino. Last summer, things were looking grim. The Louisville coach had survived -- but been thoroughly embarrassed and chastised by -- the Karen Sypher extortion scandal. His recruiting had taken a dip, and the best player from the 2010 class, Justin Coleman, was unable to qualify for the team. Top 2011 point guard Marquis Teague, long considered a likely Louisville commitment, defected to the worst possible place for Louisville fans: Kentucky. Under Calipari, the hated Wildcats were on the rise. The 2010 Cardinals were mediocre, and the talent from that squad had been thinned by the early NBA departure of center Samardo Samuels and the graduations of Reginald Delk and Jerry Smith. Could 2011 really hold that much hope? What about the long-term health of the program? Had Louisville's best years under Pitino passed him by?

A year later, those concerns seem ridiculous. The 2011 Cardinals thrived. Pitino's decision to pick up the pace -- and his brilliant construction of a lineup that executed that could execute his classic pressing style effectively -- led to a 25-10 season and one of Pitino's finest seasons as a coach. Meanwhile, the recruiting picked up: Pitino landed commitments from Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear, Zac Price and Kevin Ware, all four of whom are ranked in 2011 ESPNU top 100. Guard Peyton Siva enjoyed a breakout year at the point guard spot, and is a likely preseason candidate for Big East player of the year.

The message is clear: Louisville isn't going anywhere.

Now that that's settled, the next item on the docket is another move toward the national elite. That will require the assimilation of those talented freshmen -- especially big men Behanan and Price -- into a lineup that would benefit from size and rebounding, especially in the wake of Terrence Jennings's strange decision to enter the NBA draft this spring. Jennings was often the only interior presence worth watching for the Cardinals. His 11.8 percent offensive rebounding percentage was a major contribution, one the team often needed when its offense struggled to get easy looks. Gorgui Dieng and Stephen Van Treese might be ready to step into larger roles; both posted OR% rates higher than 13 percent in limited minutes last season.

Another item of business involves replacing Preston Knowles -- another breakout catalyst of Louisville's surprising success -- on the offensive end of the floor. Knowles wasn't the most efficient scorer (his offensive rating was a good-but-not-great 105.0), but he had the highest usage rate and shot rates on the team. Siva's emergence may help to close that gap. Chris Smith's presence is a plus. But will Blackshear -- whose scouting report cites his outside shooting as his main weakness -- be able to contribute, too? If not, will Siva be able to adopt more of a perimeter scoring load?

But these are all minor concerns for Louisville fans. For a while there, it was the big picture that seemed most worrisome. Now, Pitino and Co. are back to basketball business as normal. No more existential crises. No more embarrassing headlines. Forgive the cliche, but what a difference a year makes.