(Wayne & Chane Need to Really Step Up if the Cards Hope to Repeat)
It has been 37 days now since the Louisville Cardinals cut down the nets in Atlanta after beating Michigan in the national championship. It was one of the most dramatic and exciting championships in NCAA history and truly a gift for every Cards fan who had waited so long for that moment of victory. Eventually, though, Louisville will have to start looking at next season just as every other team that came up short was doing over a month ago. As Ethan points out below, Adam Himmelsbach of the Courier-Journal wrote a piece debating which team in the state, Kentucky or Louisville, should be #1. Now, if I can go a bit off topic for a moment, I may be the only person on the planet who is continuously rolling his eyes at the prospects of Kentucky being a lock for preseason #1. They will be extremely talented, but also extremely young, untested and those that return had their issues last season. When Andrew Wiggins committed to Kansas, it should have completely excluded the Cats from consideration. It did not. These “analysts” calling them the best team without even seeing them play are providing either no logic or terrible logic for their argument. Factor in that (despite what UK fans want to believe) John Calipari is not exactly an X’s and O’s genius, it just does not add up. I have no problem putting UK in the top 10 due to that talent, but if they flop again, there needs to be a major overhaul in the field of college basketball “experts.” However, if the same folks that thought UK and UCLA were top 3 teams this year think UK will be so dominant this year with no substance to back it up, so be it. Back to topic, though. The point is that with the return of leading scorer and Player of the Year candidate Russ Smith, Louisville makes as strong of a case as any to keep the crown of college basketaball’s best in 2014. For a team that loses just 2 key players and returns every other key player plus welcomes a top 10 recruiting class, the Cards should be an obvious favorite. However, while the team does not have as many question marks as Kentucky, there are still some holes on the roster (particularly the ones left by the 2 exiting players) that could drastically alter the Cards’ chances for better or for worse.
WHAT MUST HAPPEN
Team remains healthy. First things first. While the team did suffer some injuries, they happened early enough (obviously not including Kevin Ware here) in the year as to not affect the Cards’ postseason chances. Luke Hancock had his shoulder surgery in the offseason and bounced back at the perfect time, while Gorgui Dieng suffered a wrist injury in November. That is very uncharacteristic of a Pitino squad, who once made headlines for having players wear helmets in practice. Over the last several years, this team always seemed to have serious injuries that impacted the season. From Taquan Dean and Juan Palacios early on up to Wayne Blackshear and Peyton Siva last season, fans have almost come to mentally factor in a key injury every preseason. This season was either a lucky, isolated incident or a turn for the better. Cards fans better hope for the latter.
Chris Jones proves to be the real deal. On paper, he looks the part. A junior college All-American and 2-time defending National JUCO Player of the Year, he is regarded as one of the best JUCO prospects in years. He is definitely undersized at 5-8, but is lightning quick and fill up the scoreboard fast. Peyton Siva was the ultimate team player, and his last season and a half he was arguably one of the top 3 floor generals in the country. Not the type of player who would always put up huge numbers, he instead was the type of guy who created opportunities for his teammates. He was the guy who guys would feed off of and follow loyally. One of the critiques of Jones’ game since his high school has been his shoot-first, pass-second mentality and lack of getting teammates involved. In that sense, Siva and Jones are extremely talented, but also have very different games. For the transition to be smooth (and keep in mind, it may not be smooth right away), Jones will have to play more like a true point guard as opposed to just a scoring guard. One thing he will have to look forward to is replacing Siva on defense. That may be most difficult of all. While it did get him in trouble at times, Siva in the press paired up with Russ was as suffocating as it gets. Jones better be ready to play D. If all that happens, the Cards may just end up with the best backcourt in the country.
Wayne & Chane go from supporting cast to marquee players. When Louisville received commitments from Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan following the Sypher-plagued 2010 season, they were expected to be go-to type of guys who would lead Louisville back to the promised land. Yet, while both players played key roles in Louisville’s national championship run, neither has had the career that fans expected of them. At least not yet. Behanan has been the better of the 2, and his performance in the championship game will immortalize him as a Louisville legend. Yet, if he does not want 1 game to define him (but honestly, if he did want one game to, that is 1 to pick), he needs to play more consistently this season. There were too many games last season where Chane would just disappear. His decision to return to Louisville was a wise one for his future basketball-playing career, and he will need to play much more like he did against Michigan and less like he did through the majority of March. Blackshear, on the other hand, never really got off the ground when a shoulder injury sidelined him most of his freshman year. Since his return to the court, he has not quite found his comfort zone and has resorted at times to being a spot-up shooter who just floated around the three-point arch. He needs to rediscover the game that made him such a highly regarded recruit. The game that led some Louisville fans to believe he would be a one-and-done lottery pick. Despite his somewhat lack of production thus far in his Louisville career, his talents are obvious and he still has the ability to take over a game. After taking his lumps in his first full year, it is time for the growing pains to fade away and for him to turn into the dominant player he can be.
Tournament Luke comes to play every game. This is the thing that probably concerns me the least. It is no secret that Luke Hancock played the role of favorite punching bag for Cards fans the first half of the season. Hell, the entire regular season really. When he turned it on in March, the fans who had been so harsh about his game were suddenly silent. It is that Luke that needs to show up next season for Louisville to have a chance at a repeat. This should be the least of any fans’ worries. The beginning of the year, he was injured, adjusting to a new venue and was still working on getting his physical game to catch back up with his mental. Once all that was passed, the real Luke Hancock showed up. The one that led the Cards to a national championship. His basketball IQ is off the charts, his clutch gene is borderline unnatural and his leadership ability is beyond obvious. He will come to play.
Russ continues to play smarter and shoots at a high percentage. When Russ Smith announced his return to Louisville, it immediately moved the Cards from having an outside chance to being a legitimate favorite to repeat. When the defending national champion returns its leading scorer and a huge chunk of the rest of the roster, you would think that team would be a lock for preseason #1. However, according to all the college basketball “experts” out there who are ignoring this past season, recruiting rankings are all that matter, so that is not the case. Russ definitely puts Louisville on another level. He has gone from a lovable, entertaining sophomore to one of the most dangerous guards in the country as a junior. As a senior, he will need to continue to prove his all-around game. As a junior, he improved his shooting percentage, his passing ability and his decision making, but still has room to grow. Last season, especially in the Final Four, he made far too many hasty decisions and was quick to shoot, passing up teammates in the process. He needs to make the full transition to combo guard, rather than purely a scoring guard. If he can be a team leader and create more opportunities for his teammates rather than just himself, this team will be in good shape to repeat.
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