Photo – USA Today
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino has always tried to stack his teams with as much talent as possible. Really, aside from the Final Four squad from 2004-2005, every other Louisville team under his guidance has gone at least 9 or 10 deep. And it looks like next year things will be no different. For the most part, he’s done a pretty masterful job at handling egos and balancing playing time from an overall standpoint. However, the 2013-2014 team will be particularly crowded (more so than usual) in one specific area: the backcourt. The 3, 4 and 5 spots are pretty clear-cut at this point and we know what we’re going to get. Stephan Van Treese, Mangok Mathiang and Zach Price will patrol the middle and play center, Chane Behanan, Montrezl Harrell and Akoy Agau will hold down the power forward spot and Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear will once again man the small forward position. That leaves Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, Anton Gill, Russ Smith, Kevin Ware and Tim Henderson to all fight for clock at the point and shooting guard positions. So many players, so few minutes to go around.
Starting at the top, Pitino has said that the starting point guard spot is Chris Jones from day one. Jones, the two-time Junior College player of the year is a tough, durable and ultra-competitive kid from Memphis who already possesses the traits that a typical Pitino guard must have in order to play big minutes. He’s a proven winner and has been coached up by a former D-1 assistant (Steve Forbes) and has shown that he can score, distribute and defend. Where things should get interesting is when Jones will come out of the game. You would think that Rozier, a combo guard effective at both guard spots, would be the logical back-up, but Pitino threw everyone a curve at a press conference two weeks ago when he announced that Russ Smith would have to play some minutes at point guard this coming season. The NBA scouts told Pitino and Smith that his future at the next level lies at the 1, not the 2, therefore he’ll have to get some reps in order to improve his passing and decision-making skills. Ok, no problem. Smith and Jones can handle the point guard duties and Pitino can just slide Rozier over to shooting guard, right?
Well, perhaps, but with Smith getting the majority of those minutes himself (at the 2), it will probably only leave around 15 minutes per game between Rozier, Gill and Ware. How’s that enough? Rozier has shown at the prep level that he’s become an elite talent capable of scoring in huge numbers, from both the outside and by slashing into the lane and scoring at the rim. How do you keep a scorer like that off the floor for long stretches? Gill, similarly, can also fill it up and is a dead-eye shooter, which is something Louisville lacked during this past year’s National Championship run. Again, how do you keep him off the floor? And then there’s Ware. He could potentially provide the biggest obstacle of all. Remember, when the Cards really turned things around in early March, it was partly due to the fact that Pitino moved Ware to point guard where he could overwhelm smaller players with his size and athleticism. The move was brilliant and Ware looked like a totally different player. But now, with both Jones and Smith in the fold, where does he fit in? Do you somehow slice up the point guard pie three ways? Do you play Ware a little at both the 1 and 2 spots? What about moving him back to the small forward position? Well, you run into the same problems since both Hancock and Blackshear are there. So, in the end, what solutions are there – if any?
First and foremost, we should all remember that this is a pretty damn good problem to have. No other team in the nation, aside from maybe Kentucky, will be able to display the type of depth that Louisville will have next season. And Pitino, as mentioned, is a master at controlling egos and getting his kids to buy in to the bigger picture. That should be even easier than usual after coming off of a National Championship. I also hate what I’m about to type, but, as we all known far too well, there will probably be an injury at some point that will open up some previously occupied playing time. That’s just the nature of the beast. Also, as game-ready as Rozier and Gill appear, they might just have to bite the bullet and wait their turn. Maybe them only getting 8-10 minutes a piece is the only way this thing will work. They put in the work, learn the system and come back hungry and ready for huge minutes their sophomore seasons. But maybe more than anything else, this could be the type of team that allows Pitino the luxury to sit back and play chess on a nightly basis, depending on the opponent. More specifically, depending on the match-up, play certain line-ups that appear to be most effective against that particular opponent. If you have the luxury of depth, why not use it in a variety of ways? Maybe one night Rozier has a favorable match-up and he gets 25 minutes. Then the next time out, it could be Jones that plays huge minutes and Smith plays mostly the two, leaving fewer minutes for Gill and Rozier. I doubt we’ll ever see a set pattern, but rather a constantly-fluctuating rotation that will be completely different from game to game.
However he does it, Rick Pitino is going to have a mass of talent at his disposal for 2013-2014. There are worse problems to have.