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No. 8: Louisville Cardinals

Oct 13, 2011, 4:35 PM EDT

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Midnight Madness is Friday. So we’re kicking off our college basketball coverage with our men’s preseason Top 25. Look for five teams posted a day, all this week.

2010-11 record: 25-10 (12-6), 3rd in Big East (tied)
Lost in NCAA tournament first round

Coach: Rick Pitino, 245-96, 11th year (597-220 overall)

Last NCAA miss: 2006

2011-12 roster [click here]
2011-12 schedule [click here]
2010-11 team stats [click here]

The good: The Cardinals are healthy. Few teams dealt with more injuries last season than Louisville, which welcomes back a healthy Rakeem Buckles and forward Jared Swopshire, who missed all of last season with a groin injury. Both will vie for starting spots.

Even better? Those injuries gave others more playing time. That meant senior Chris Smith went from a former walk-on to starter and 3-point threat. Same for senior Kyle Kuric, who’s game isn’t as well-rounded as Smith’s but is a better shooter. And freshman Gorgui Dieng became a likely bench-warmer to shot-blocking menace.

Then there’s a fantastic group of incoming freshmen, led by guard Wayne Blackshear and forward Chane Behanan. They’ll be in the mix for starting spots and ample playing time

And leading them all is junior point guard Peyton Siva, who assumes Kemba Walker’s title as quickest guard in the Big East. He’ll create shots for others, for himself and torment defenses too slow to stop him.

The bad: There isn’t much to fret about … except that interior defense.

Louisville’s pressure defense did its usual thing in 2010-11: Created turnovers, harassed teams into poor shots. The result was one of the nation’s most efficient defenses, which usually resulted in easy transition baskets.

But one past that host of pressuring guards, opponents were able to score more easily and grab plenty of offensive rebounds. But hey, maybe that was Terrence Jennings’ fault. Regardless, if the interior defense, Pitino’s got a Final Four team.

The unknown: The freshmen might be more talented than guys like Smith, Kuric and Mike Marra. But those guys know Pitino’s system and play their roles within that system. Does Pitino stick with what’s worked or try his hand with guys who present a greater upside.

This is hardly the first time Pitino’s had loaded team. He’ll know how to manage the talent and any egos that emerge. The Cardinals have some decent tests before Big East play (Vandy and Memphis), but it’s mostly a batch of opponents that’ll let him find the right mix just before the real tests come along.

Counting down the preseason Top 25

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

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