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If you look at the recruiting history and patterns of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, especially in recent years, you’ll see solid classes built around longevity. Having one-and-done players has never been his forte nor something he even seems remotely interested in pursuing. That said, Louisville’s classes are almost always in the top 10 nationally, and even the ones that aren’t (think 2010) end up producing huge results (Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith, anyone?). For a multitude of reasons (a non-negotiable stance on learning his defensive schemes, loyalty to veterans, etc) Pitino rarely relies on his freshmen for a huge impact. His system is designed to have talented players in every class so there’s always the luxury of having experienced, talented guys at the top of the depth chart. Now there’s always the exceptions, guys like Chane Behanan or Samardo Samuels, guys that filled an immediate need and were simply the best option from day one. But for the most part, freshmen come off the bench (while still contributing) and are role players. However, next year, things should be much different.
If Russ Smith ends up going pro (the announcement is set for 1:00 today), both of Louisville’s starting backcourt positions will be open. And the Cards are bringing in a trio of scorers who more than adequately fit the bill. Chris Jones, the consensus #1 junior college player in the nation according to recruiting experts, averaged 22 ppg, 5.2 apg and 5.1 rpg this past season at Northwest Florida State. He was the Panhandle Conference player of the year for the second consecutive time, as well. But most importantly, he’s a proven winner as he helped guide NWFS to back-to-back league titles. He will step in for Peyton Siva and provide a similar skill-set right off the bat. Jones might not be quite the facilitator that Siva was, but that’s partially due to the fact that he was asked to be more of a scorer for NWFS and didn’t have as much talent surrounding him. Next year, with the likes of Behanan, Wayne Blackshear, Luke Hancock and a host of others, that certainly won’t be a problem.
Then there’s the prolific scoring duo from Hargrave Military Academy, Anton Gill and Terry Rozier. If Smith does end up leaving, unless Pitino decides to go with Hancock and Blackshear together at the 2 and 3 spots, that shooting guard spot will be filled by one of the Hargrave kids. Rozier, a physical guard for his size and build, has shot up all the recruiting rankings and looks poised to become a huge contributor for the Cards right out of the gates. We got to see, first hand, what he’s capable of doing when his team visited town for the annual Louisville Hoopfest back in January. All he did was pour in 68 points and dominate the game en route to a victory over Action Sports Academy. For the season, Rozier averaged 31 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds per game. He can play both guard spots, shoots the ball well, is unselfish and can also get in the lane and finish with abnormal strength. Rozier, whether a starter or not next year, will have an enormous impact on this team however he’s used.
As for Gill, he could be the best pure shooter that Louisville’s had in several years. A dead-eye lefty from Tobacco Road, Gill averaged 28 points and 8 rebounds at Hargrave this past season and was the perfect counter-punch to Rozier in the backcourt for head coach A.W. Hamilton. Also capable of scoring in bunches (he had 56 points in a game back in late December), Gill is a prototype 2-guard that will give the Cards much needed depth and a dependable scorer from the outside. I could possibly even see him playing both the 2 and 3 spots, depending on the match-up and the other team’s size. And one thing to consider when analyzing all three of these players, keep in mind that they didn’t play your normal, run-of-the-mill generic high school schedule. Jones was playing against college-level competition (Juco or not, it’s still ten times more competitive than high school ball) and Gill and Rozier played at one of the most prestigious prep schools in the nation that competes against all levels, including college.
Bottom line is this: Louisville’s bringing in perhaps its best recruiting class since Rick Pitino arrived here. The 2011 class with Behanan and Blackshear was strong, but I see more instant results from this trio on the horizon. All three can shoot, all three can distribute the ball and they’re not afraid to mix it up in the paint and hit the glass. It’s also worth noting that all three played for demanding, high-level coaches in Hamilton and NWFS’s Steve Forbes. Hamilton is a college coach in waiting and Forbes is a former Tennessee assistant and is making quite the name for himself in the junior college ranks. These kids have had to play defense and work hard, just a few more reasons why the transition should be a bit smoother than it is for most other incoming freshmen.
Louisville is fresh off a National Championship run, but next year’s blend of veterans and instant impact freshmen should have them right back in the thick of things.