The Louisville Cardinals are our latest preview as we go through each team in the ACC to prepare for the 2014-15 college basketball season.
We’re going in alphabetical order through every team in the new-look ACC, but we’ll be excluding Duke – seeing as how the Blue Devils already receive a fair amount of coverage on this site.
If you’ve missed any of our previous previews, I encourage you to check them out to get an idea of the landscape around the ACC. We’ve already covered Boston College, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech.
It’s the first year in the ACC for Rick Pitino and the Cardinals, who are expected to make a deep league even deeper. Here are my thoughts on how they’ll fare this season.
2013-14 Record: Overall: 31-6 | American: 15-3 (1st Place)
Games against Duke this season: Saturday, January 17 at Louisville
Louisville had an outstanding team last year that won 31 games and entered the NCAA Tournament as a popular pick to get back to the Final Four and repeat as national champions. After beating UConn by 33 points on March 8, it looked like Louisville was playing as well as anyone in the country headed into the postseason. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they were eliminated in a fantastic Sweet 16 game against Kentucky, who would go on to represent the Bluegrass State in the title game. It was a very balanced attack for Rick Pitino’s club (as it often is), as Louisville was led by seniors Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, but also could turn to Montrezl Harrell in the post.
Key Players: Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier
Harrell’s decision to return to Louisville for his junior season was one of the biggest surprises of the college basketball offseason. The 6’8”, 240-pound forward was projected as a first-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, but he opted to return for another year of college basketball. He averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last season and gives the Cardinals one of the most effective post players in the country. If he can stay healthy and out of foul trouble, he’s a potential ACC Player of the Year and First Team All-American.
When you talk about players with the most potential to have a breakout 2014-15 season, Terry Rozier is one of the guys in the conversation. He’s the guard Rick Pitino will need to step up to make up for the loss of guard Russ Smith, and Rozier has some of the same skills that made Smith such an explosive scorer. If Rozier can be a threat off the dribble and a consistent shooter, he’ll help provide the Cardinals with a more balanced offseason.
X-Factor: Chris Jones
Rick Pitino’s best teams are usually known for having a suffocating defense that is extremely aggressive and Chris Jones will be the key to that attack this season. The former JUCO Player of the Year is now in his senior year and he’ll be counted on to provide leadership and stability for a team that has had some very strong leaders over the past few seasons.
Even after losing three key seniors from last season’s team, Louisville is the type of program that simply reloads. Montrezl Harrell should be a beast in the paint, and his battles against the North Carolina and Duke frontcourts will be some of the most intriguing match-ups of the season. Coach Pitino will develop his bench and have the Cardinals playing well at the end of the season with a deep squad, because there’s probably not a better coach in America at improving his roster over the course of the season.
The biggest question is whether or not he can find a player capable of hitting big shots in end-game situations. The Cardinals had two of the best in the country in this area over the past two years with Russ Smith and Luke Hancock and it’s not an easy thing to replace. If someone accepts the role, this is a team fully capable of winning the ACC Championship and cutting down the nets in April.