Will Louisville Be Better or Worse in 2013-14 NCAA Basketball Season?
Could Louisville's 2013-14 team be better than the championship team?
If you ask Peyton Siva, he's making it sound that way. Siva told Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com that the Cardinals will be "better" and "more talented" than a season ago.
"They really aren't missing anything," Siva said. "The key for them will be chemistry because talentwise, there's nothing to worry about."
Is Siva selling his championship squad short? Or is he onto something here? Let's break it down position by position.
Center: Gorgui Dieng vs. Montrezl Harrell
Gorgui Dieng was one of the best defensive centers in the country. Without him, Louisville's full-court press was still a pain to go against because of Russ Smith and Siva's pressure. With Dieng, the Cardinals were the most complete defensive team in the country because if you managed to beat the press, Dieng made it extremely tough to score in the paint.
Getting used to playing with Dieng will be one of the challenges for Louisville. Montrezl Harrell has the athleticism and length to be a good shot-blocker, but he does not have the awareness and timing of Dieng.
What Harrell does have is a higher ceiling on the offensive end. He's a better finisher around the rim, he's quicker and his postgame, which is still developing, is more fluid. Dieng did develop the ability to knock down a 15-footer, but he was never a feared threat on that end. If Harrell plays to his potential, he will be.
Power Forward: Chane Behanan vs. Chane Behanan
This should be pretty simple, right? Chane Behanan as a junior should be better than Behanan as a sophomore.
Typically, yes. But Behanan was essentially the same player his freshman and sophomore years with his offensive numbers even experiencing a small regression.
Freshman year Behanan was a slightly more efficient scorer and a better rebounder (7.5 per game compared to 6.5). His scoring average did go up a tick from 9.5 to 9.8.
We all saw in the championship game when he went for 15 points and 12 rebounds how valuable Behanan can be when he is aggressive and gets his opportunities. Assuming his teammates noticed that as well, let's assume Behanan will see his role increase as a junior.
Small Forward: Wayne Blackshear vs. Wayne Blackshear
This could be Wayne Blackshear vs. Luke Hancock based off the NCAA tournament. Hancock made a case to become the starter this upcoming season.
Siva spoke well of Hancock (we'll get to that later), but he also had good things to say about Blackshear. In fact, listening to Siva, it sounds as though Blackshear could be the most improved player on the roster.
"He's finally had a full summer of workouts," Siva said. "The last two summers, he couldn't do anything because of his shoulders. He's a lot slimmer now. We can't call him 'Fat Wayne' anymore. He's got his explosiveness back and is much lighter on his feet."
This is a good sign for Louisville because Blackshear appeared to hit a wall midway through last season. Over his first 22 games, Blackshear averaged 9.6 points and shot 36.6 percent from distance. Over the final 17 games, he averaged 5.1 points and made only 23.9 percent of his threes.
Shooting Guard: Russ Smith vs. Russ Smith
Russ Smith as a third-team All-American was probably the biggest slight in recent years in terms of postseason awards. Smith was underappreciated because his shot selection could be reckless at times. You could even go as far as saying Louisville beat Michigan in spite of Smith, who missed 13 of the 16 shots he took that night.
But the Cardinals would not have been in the title game without Smith. For a majority of the season, he was a valuable asset to Louisville's offense because of his ability to get to the paint and the free-throw line. Did he take too many ill-advised shots? Yes. But he also did a lot of good for Louisville's offense, and he was a weapon defensively.
Smith has had a good summer, leading his team of counselors to the title at the adidas Nations camp—he scored 23 in the championship, according to Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com—and he averaged 23 points, 4.8 assists and 6.8 rebounds on an all-star team at the Four Nations Cup, via cardchronicle.com.
Since he has improved every season at Louisville, let's assume he does the same as a senior.
Point Guard: Peyton Siva vs. Chris Jones
The one asset that Siva might be underselling when comparing the championship team to the 2013-14 team is what he brought to the table. But he does make Chris Jones sound like a worthy replacement.
Siva said, per ESPN.com:
People haven't seen Chris and a lot of people don't know who he is, but he can shoot, can really score and is as quick—if not quicker than Russ. He's got a bulldog mentality and loves to pick guys up full-court. He's shorter than me, but he's so strong and athletic and won't be pushed around. He can go for 30 any night.
Jones is a scorer and more of a shoot-first guard like Smith than a distributor like Siva. Jones averaged 16.6 shot attempts in 23.2 minutes per game last season for his junior college team.
With Smith still around and the interior options improving offensively for Louisville, a point guard who likes to shoot might not be the best thing. Jones could, of course, adjust his game to fit whatever Pitino needs from him.
That's what Siva did. He also was a great perimeter defender and teammate. Louisville fans have to like hearing good things about Jones from the man he'll replace, but they know it will not be easy for Jones to equal Siva's value.
Louisville's bench was not deep last season, especially when Kevin Ware was lost, but it was a nice luxury to have a shooter like Hancock and a future pro like Harrell to bring off the bench.
Hancock will likely still be the shooter/scorer off the bench, and Stephan Van Treese will now be the first big off the bench.
The advantage this year's team will have is depth in the backcourt. Ware was the only player on the bench who had the speed and athleticism to replace Siva or Smith without Louisville's defense suffering. Pitino now has backups at both guard spots with incoming freshmen Anton Gill and Terry Rozier. It's too soon to say whether Ware can be the same player.
Hancock should be much closer to the man he was in March and April. He proved that this summer playing for the U.S. team at the World University Games, where he averaged 10.8 points and made 42.1 percent of his threes.
"He has so much more confidence and is shooting the ball much better," Siva said of Hancock. "People forget that he was hurt last year coming into the season with the shoulder injury, and that's why he struggled early shooting the ball. He's pulling up on the break now and making 3s."
When you break it down on paper, what Siva is saying makes sense. Louisville should be improved at three starter spots with an improved bench. Harrell has the potential to be better than Dieng offensively, and the same could be said for Jones compared to Siva.
That doesn't mean the team will be better. The Cardinals were so dominant last season because of their defense, and how well Jones and Harrell are able to replace Siva and Dieng on that end will be a key. Those are the unknowns.
And even if Louisville's 2013-14 team could beat the championship team, that does not make repeating a given. The competition around the country could be improved. That's the expectation because of a loaded 2013 recruiting class.
But if Louisville 2013-14 is even the equal to the 2012-13 team, it's tough to bet against Pitino's crew.