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Saturday, November 9, 2013
Louisville adjusting with new faces, roles

By Myron Medcalf


People sometimes panic during the first few days of the college basketball season.

Kinks and flaws are magnified, even though the sample size is far too small to be used as evidence to produce a realistic conclusion about any program. That doesn’t stop us, however, from making assumptions.

From worrying.

From anticipating doom.

Think Virginia Tech’s fans care that the Hokies’ 64-63 loss to South Carolina Upstate on Saturday was just the first of many games? Think defending ACC champ Miami’s supporters feel calm after Friday night’s 66-62 loss to St. Francis (N.Y.)?

At least those teams had problems that were easily identifiable in the offseason.

Louisville, the defending national champion and No. 3 squad in the Associated Press preseason poll, probably prompted jitters within its fan base after its sloppy start against a bold Charleston program that was down just 49-45 with 6 minutes, 41 seconds to play Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center. A late run finished the Cougars.

But don’t believe the 70-48 final score. Charleston was tougher than that.

For a chunk of the matchup, Louisville was inefficient and ineffective. Missed layups and jump shots. Squandered fast-break opportunities.

Charleston forwards Adjehi Baru and Willis Hall combined for 15 points and 13 rebounds against Louisville. They were probably more comfortable than they would have been with 6-foot-6 forward Chane Behanan, currently serving a suspension, available for the Cardinals. Plus, Luke Hancock was injured.

Montrezl Harrell
Montrezl Harrell played 33 minutes in Louisville's season opener and had 10 points and eight rebounds.
Still, Louisville launched a 21-3 rally in the final 6:41 that was created by the full-court pressure that has killed the dreams of many Cardinals opponents in recent years. They were brilliant down the stretch.

So what was the problem before that run?

Well, this is not last season's Cardinals squad. That’s obvious, I know.

But Louisville in 2013-14 is different from the team that won the national championship trophy in April. No Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng.

Other players have accepted new roles. Wayne Blackshear goes from young reserve to critical piece in Rick Pitino’s rotation. Montrezl Harrell will play center at times this season when Louisville uses a smaller lineup. He averaged 16.2 minutes per game last season. He played 33 on Saturday.

Chris Jones, the highly touted junior college transfer, was solid in a Division I debut (12 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals) that justified the hype that preceded his arrival. Russ Smith (21 points) struggled from the field (1-for-5 from the 3-point line), but he helped the Cardinals finish strong.

Smith played the last three seasons with Siva next to him. He and Jones could be one of America’s best combos, but they’ll also play some rough basketball -- they certainly did Saturday -- as they continue to learn each other’s tendencies.

Until the Cardinals pulled off that impressive run in the final minutes, a loss seemed possible.

Blackshear, Jones and Smith were 15-for-44 from the field. The Cardinals made 22 percent of their 3-point attempts and 61 percent of their free throws. Not their best day.

But that effort shouldn’t serve as an exhibit for critics. The Cardinals are good. They’re versatile, athletic and relentless on defense. Charleston committed 21 turnovers.

They’re also a team in transition as new faces join old ones and players adapt to new individual expectations. And it showed throughout their first game of the season.

Louisville reached the Final Four in back-to-back seasons with a group that had learned from its experience in 2012 and used that to its advantage in 2013.

Although some of the same players from those teams are on this season's roster, the Cardinals lack continuity. A big part of that change involves Louisville’s switches at key positions (point guard and center) and its reliability on new players.

But the Cardinals can still build a similar level of chemistry. It will take time, though. Behanan and Hancock will return. Harrell and Blackshear will become more comfortable as starters. Freshmen Mangok Mathiang (seven points, 10 rebounds, one block) and Terry Rozier will grow.

But this isn’t last year.

That doesn’t mean Louisville can’t match that team’s achievements, because it can.

Moving forward after losing key players and asking others to assume different roles, however, is never an easy adjustment. Even for a national champion.

That rocky stretch in Saturday’s game proved as much.

And that’s all it proved.