The college hoops season officially tips off 4 weeks from today. The Armed Forces Classic game, which will be played on Nov. 14 at U.S. Air Station Borinquen in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, will feature Louisville coach Rick Pitino against his son, Richard, who is in his second season as head coach at Minnesota.
The Cards enter the season with lofty expectations. The USA Today Coaches’ Poll, which was released Thursday afternoon has the Cards just inside the top ten at No. 9. Staying there, however, will be challenging. In total, 15 of Louisville’s 31 games will be played against teams ranked or receiving votes in the preseason poll (6 vs top 8).
The non conference schedule features a little bit of everything. The Pitino Bowl. Strong competition at home featuring tilts with Ohio State and Kentucky. A Madison Square Garden matchup against Indiana. Keep your scissors in your pocket, Crean. An intriguing road trip to E.A. Diddle Arena to square off against Western Kentucky in their first season in C-USA.
Louisville enters its first season in the ACC, and bolsters the conference to the toughest in college hoops. While Duke, North Carolina, and Louisville are the heavyweights, Syracuse, Virginia, NC State, Pitt, Florida State, Miami, and Notre Dame are all capable of bringing them down. A ten bid league in the NCAA’s is a reasonable expectation, though 7-8 is more realistic.
Likely the most shocking decision of any player who bypassed the NBA to return to school was Montrezl Harrell. His return kept Louisville’s expectations of deep tournament runs in tact. Without him, the Cards would be dependent on the services of sophomore Akoy Agau, and incoming freshman Jaylen Johnson and Chinanu Onuaku. Harrell’s defensive prowess and rebounding are well known, and according to Pitino, he’s improved his range and ball handling. He is the unequivocal leader of this team.
Next In Line: Terry Rozier
The sophomore guard is set up for a breakout season. He’s all over NBA radars, and with the departure of Russ Smith, it’s time for Rozier to take the reigns.
Rozier will see an uptick from his 18 minutes per game and his touches, while sharing the backcourt with Chris Jones. Terry possess an excellent jump shot, but using his athleticism to get to the rim and draw fouls should be an emphasis on his game.
Now Or Never: Wayne Blackshear
“The only player I’ve had in the past four years that hasn’t had substantial improvement is Wayne Blackshear,” Pitino said of the 6-foot-5 junior wing from Chicago back in March.
Louisville needs a consistent, stat-stuffing Wayne Blackshear if there is any hope at another title run. Pitino’s summer updates were an indication that Wayne devoted the time and was the surprise of the summer.
Heralded recruit Shaqquan Aaron was brought in to challenge Wayne for minutes. And while Aaron should play, it appears that Blackshear has distanced himself enough from the competition.
Last season: 31-6 (15-3) AAC
Postseason: Sweet 16
Beat Kentucky: No, dammit. 0-2)
Coach: Rick Pitino 341-117 at Louisville
ACC Projection: Third
Postseason Projection: Sweet 16
Gone But Not Forgotten: Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Stephen Van Treese, Tim Henderson, Kevin Ware
Freshman: Shaqquan Aaron, Quentin Snider, Chinanu Onuaku, Jaylen Johnson, Anas Osama Mahmoud, Matz Stockman
Recruiting Rank: 10 (3) ACC
Projected Starting Five: Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell, Mangok Mathiang
Key Reserves: Akoy Agua, Anton Gill, Shaqquan Aaron, Quentin Snider, Chinanu Onuaku, Jaylen Johnson
26-5 with a win over Kentucky and a return to the Sweet 16. Montrezl Harrell has an all-american season, shatters a backboard, and is a lottery pick in the NBA draft. Rozier has a great year and returns for junior season for a title run in 2015.
21-10 Front court depth plagues the Cards with losses to Minnesota, Ohio State, and blow a late lead versus Kentucky. Harrell and Rozier both leave for the draft and Adidas supplies a worse tourney uniform than the regular season ones.