Players That Will Have Biggest Roles in Louisville's 2014 Title Defense
National champion Louisville is losing some key contributors to graduation and the NBA, but the Cardinals still have talent to burn. With a solid recruiting class joining a wealth of returning standouts, Rick Pitino has plenty of firepower as he prepares his team to defend its crown.
One of the stars who stuck around is rock-solid power forward Chane Behanan. The junior-to-be is already a top-notch rebounder, and he’s shown flashes of offensive firepower that Louisville could definitely use in the low post.
Herein, a closer look at Behanan and the rest of the five players the Cards will rely on most as they try to become the first repeat champion since the 2006-07 Florida Gators.
5. Luke Hancock
Luke Hancock managed the remarkable feat of earning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors as a sixth man. It’s a good thing the George Mason transfer is comfortable coming off the bench, because he’ll likely keep right on doing so as a senior.
Hancock lacks the athleticism to start in Rick Pitino’s high-pressure defense, but that same defense also puts a premium on having an effective second unit.
Hancock’s three-point shooting and passing skills will be particularly valuable next year in sparking an offense that will be without Peyton Siva’s leadership.
4. Chane Behanan
Gorgui Dieng’s departure for the NBA puts even more pressure on Chane Behanan to control the glass. The 6’6”, 250-pound Behanan led Cardinals returnees with 6.5 boards a night while chipping in 9.8 points per game last season.
The rising junior’s mobility also makes him a key factor in Louisville’s morphing defenses, and he grabbed 1.4 steals per contest last year.
Without Dieng’s shot-blocking presence inside, Behanan’s ability to force turnovers will become a bigger factor on that end of the floor.
3. Montrezl Harrell
The lion’s share of the minutes opened up by Gorgui Dieng’s departure are likely to go to promising PF Montrezl Harrell. As a freshman, Harrell averaged 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds per game off the bench.
The 6’8” youngster isn’t remotely equipped to replace Dieng’s defensive presence inside, but he’ll compensate with his contributions on the offensive end.
Harrell was already the Cards’ most aggressive interior scorer as a reserve, and he’ll be a real boon to the half-court offense when his playing time expands.
2. Chris Jones
Last season, Cleanthony Early joined Wichita State as a junior college transfer and became a leader for a Final Four team. Next year, another JUCO standout will get his chance to lead the defending national champs as Chris Jones arrives in Louisville.
Jones is a 5’10” point guard whose experience gives him the inside track to replace Peyton Siva in the Cardinals’ starting lineup.
The newcomer looks to have the quickness and ballhandling skills to prevent a serious drop-off in Siva’s absence, either in the half-court offense or in the transition game that fueled the 2012-13 champs.
1. Russ Smith
No player deserves more credit for Louisville’s national title than Russ Smith, and no player will have more to say than Smith about the Cards’ chances of repeating.
The team’s most dangerous player on both ends of the floor, Smith led the national champs (by a wide margin) with 18.7 points per game and also grabbed 2.1 steals a night.
Smith’s one-man fast breaks were the best weapon in Louisville’s arsenal, and there’s no reason to expect him to slow down as a senior.
He was already the go-to offensive option in the half court as well, and his average of 2.9 assists per game will likely climb now that Peyton Siva is gone.