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Top 25 Countdown: No. 2 Louisville Cardinals

Nov 1, 2012, 9:00 AM EDT

Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino directs his team against the Kentucky Wildcats during the first half of their men's NCAA Final Four semi-final college basketball game in New Orleans

Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 30-10, 10-8 Big East (7th); Lost in the Final Four to Kentucky

Head Coach: Rick Pitino

Key Losses: Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith, Jared Swopshire, Mike Marra, Rakeem Buckles

Newcomers: Montrezl Harrell, Mangok Mathiang

Projected Lineup:

G: Peyton Siva, Sr.
G: Wayne Blackshear, So.
F: Luke Hancock, Jr.
F: Chane Behanan, So.
C: Gorgui Dieng, Jr.
Bench: Montrezl Harrell, Fr; Russ Smith, Jr.; Kevin Ware, So.; Zach Price, So.

Outlook: The future is bright for the Louisville Cardinals. They are coming off of a trip to the Final Four, they have a loaded recruiting class coming in next season, their head coach just inked a deal to keep him in town until 2022 and, most importantly, the Cardinals are ranked higher than in-state rival Kentucky.

Louisville is a legitimate national title threat this season, and it all starts with their defense, where the Cardinals were the best team in the country last season, according to efficiency guru Kenpom. Using different variations of a 2-3 zone and a 2-2-1 zone press, the Cardinals were able to use the perfect combination of ball pressure on the perimeter and shot-blocking around the rim to make running offense a nightmare for opposing teams. They forced turnovers, they blocked shots and they didn’t allow open shots. In fact, there is ample opportunity for the Cardinal’s defense to improve, as they were ranked 230th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage.

With so many key pieces returning this season, it’s difficult to imagine Louisville having anything but an elite defense again this year.

The question marks lie on the offensive end of the floor.

Louisville was not a good offensive team last year. There were times, prior to the run they made in the month of March, that the Cardinals were downright bad on that end of the floor. They turned the ball over, they forced too many bad shots, and they couldn’t hit anything from beyond the arc. What’s worse is that the team that was 103rd in offensive efficiency a season ago loses the only two players on their roster — Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith — who were consistently efficient players on the offensive end of the floor. That’s worrisome.

What needs to be noted here is that there is room for interpretation within the numbers. Take Peyton Siva, for example. He entered last season with quite a bit of expectation, but he struggled mightily early in the year. But his play down the stretch — particularly in the month of March — was the biggest reason Louisville won the Big East tournament and made the Final Four. When Siva’s at his best, Pitino is able to run him off of high-ball screens and simply allow Siva’s talent to take over. If that Peyton Siva shows up this year, Louisville will be fine.

The other difference at the end of the season for Louisville was Wayne Blackshear. A highly-regarded freshman last season, Blackshear spent much of the year battling shoulder problems. He only played in 15 games, but while his numbers were limited (7.0 minutes and 2.5 points), he did show some flashes of serious potential. He’s a bigger wing and a guy that can score and, more importantly, shoot from the perimeter. His presence will provide more consistency for the Cardinals.

Joining those two on the perimeter will Luke Hancock, a versatile, 6-foot-5 wing that is eligible this season after transferring in from George Mason. Hancock can score, but what makes him special is his ability to be a playmaker on the wing, which should help take some of the pressure off of Siva. The exciting Russ Smith will also see plenty of action. Smith is a gunner through and through, to the point where, at times, his shooting and penchant for turning the ball over is almost a detriment. But he’s also good enough that when he gets going, he can drop 30. Sophomore point guard Kevin Ware will likely back Siva up.

Gorgui Dieng is the star of the Louisville front court. A 6-foot-11 athlete, Dieng is one of the best defensive centers in the country, and he’ll only get better as his offensive repertoire expands. He’ll be joined by two strong and explosive power forwards in Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell. Harrell will likely begin the year in the starting lineup as Behanan deals with some suspension issues, but both are threats to post a double-double on any given night. Expect Zach Price and Stephen Van Treese to see time as well.

Predictions?: Last year was a weird year for the Cardinals. They had a bunch of players taking on new and expanded roles, and it took them a few months to really embrace those roles and learn how to thrive in them. The question this season is whether or not those same players are going to feel pressure when asked to go from the hunters to the hunted. Louisville is going to have a target on their back every time they step foot on the floor. How will this team react? Because anything less than a Big East title and a return trip to the Final Four is going to be considered a disappoint in a town that’s overshadowed by their bigger, blue neighbors.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

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