Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals stood atop the college basketball world last April, defeating the Michigan Wolverines in the national championship as they proved to be deserving of the tournament's No. 1 overall seed that they were pegged for prior to the NCAA tournament.
The Cardinals said goodbye to senior Peyton Siva and junior Gorgui Dieng but return three starters, several key reserves, as well as adding a strong recruiting class. The Cardinals start the 2013-14 season ranked third in the AP Poll, only behind the Kentucky Wildcats and Michigan State Spartans.
The Cards must also become accustomed to playing in a new conference, though only for one season. Louisville will be the clear favorites to win the American Athletic Conference before bolting for the greener pastures of the Atlantic Coast Conference a year from now.
The following will provide a look at the Cardinals roster, projected rotation, key newcomers and returning players, most important players, potential season scenarios and finally, a prediction of where I see Pitino's squad finishing at season's end.
Chris Jones- After four seasons of Peyton Siva handling the rock, Cardinal fans will see a fresh face in the backcourt this season. Jones, the top junior college player last season, will have two seasons as a member of the Cardinals.
Jones stands only 5'10" and weighs 175 pounds, though Siva was only two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier. A season ago, Jones averaged 21.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.0 steals. Though he won't match those numbers as a junior, he will be an immediate impact player for the 'Ville.
Anton Gill- The 50th-rated player in the 2013 Rivals rankings, Gill should also add depth to Pitino's backcourt. Gill is a natural scorer, who averaged over 28 points per contest a year ago for Hargrave Military Academy. There, Gill teamed with current Louisville freshman Terry Rozier.
The Gill/Rozier duo combined for 31 points in Louisville's opening exhibition contest against Kentucky Wesleyan, while Jones added 16 himself. Gill and Rozier should both see minutes off the Cardinal bench and could see the floor together, as Rozier plays point guard while Gill will be slotted at shooting guard.
Akoy Agau- Another top recruit that Pitino and his staff were able to bring in is the 87th-ranked player according to Rivals, Akoy Agau. Agau was efficient in the team's exhibition blowout win, scoring eight points and grabbing eight rebounds in only 13 minutes of action.
With a loaded frontcourt, or team for that matter, Agau's role should also be a reserve. Agau is from Sudan but played his prep ball in Omaha, Nebraska where he won four state titles. Agau could see similar minutes to Gill and Rozier during Chane Behanan's absence, however.
Russ Smith- As a junior, Smith averaged 18.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals in 30.3 minutes. Smith, who is not a bashful shooter, attempted 14 shots during those 30-plus minutes, connecting on 41 percent of his total shots, though only 33 percent of his three-point attempts.
Smith's father announced that his son would forego his senior season for the NBA following the national title victory, before coming to grips and deciding to come back to school. Smith and Pitino have always had a hot-and-cold relationship, as this Brooklyn native has had his ups and downs.
The 6'0", 165-pound Smith is too small to play shooting guard in the NBA but isn't a good enough distributor to play point guard. Regardless of what his professional career holds, Smith should be one of the nation's top players and continue to score in bunches while leading Louisville to wins.
Luke Hancock- Last season's Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Hancock also had his share of inconsistency as a junior. Hancock averaged 8.1 points while shooting 40 percent from deep during the regular season but averaged 21 points on 80 percent three-point shooting in two Final Four contests.
Hancock, a George Mason transfer, now has a preseason confidence that he may have lacked a year ago, sometimes passing up open threes. Whether Hancock is a starter or is once again a reserve, he will play at least 22 minutes per game as he did a year ago, often finding himself on the court at game's end.
Montrezl Harrell- After a freshman season where Harrell averaged 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 16.2 minutes off the bench, expectations are through the roof for this talented young man. Harrell will now be inserted into the starting lineup following Dieng's departure and provide an energy most don't possess.
Harrell is an electric player who will have some highlight-reel dunks and swat some opponent's shots. Harrell will need to improve from the charity stripe, where he was successful on only 51 percent of his attempts a year ago. Though, he did shoot 58 percent from the field—most being shots in the paint.
0 Terry Rozier G 6'1" 170 FR Cleveland, OH
1 Anton Gill G 6'4" 180 FR Raleigh, NC
2 Russ Smith G 6'0" 165 SR Brooklyn, NY
3 Chris Jones G 5'10" 175 JR Memphis, TN
4 Dillon Avare G 5'11" 155 FR Lexington, KY
5 Kevin Ware G 6'2" 175 JR Bronx, NY
11 Luke Hancock F 6'6" 200 SR Roanoke, VA
12 Mangok Mathiang F-C 6'10" 200 FR Melbourne, Australia
15 Tim Henderson G 6'2" 195 SR Louisville, KY
20 Wayne Blackshear G-F 6'5" 230 JR Chicago, IL
21 Chane Behanan F 6'6" 250 JR Cincinnati, OH
22 Akoy Agau F 6'8" 235 FR Omaha, NE
23 David Levitch G 6'3" 190 FR Goshen, KY
24 Montrezl Harrell F 6'8" 235 SO Tarboro, NC
44 Stephan Van Treese F 6'9" 245 SR Indianapolis, IN
C- Montrezl Harrell
PF- Wayne Blackshear
SF- Luke Hancock
SG- Russ Smith
PG- Chris Jones
6- Steven Van Treese
7- Kevin Ware
8- Anton Gill
Others: Terry Rozier, Akoy Agau, Tim Henderson, Mangok Mathiang
Bench: Dillon Avare, David Levitch, Chane Behanan (while suspended)
Chane Behanan- Uncertainty can be a terrible and nerve-wracking subject. When will Behanan be back? Who knows. Whether Behanan is playing or not, Louisville will be good. But, the Cardinals may need Behanan back and active to once again be a great team to reach his third consecutive Final Four.
In three Final Four contests, Behanan has averaged 11.7 points and 10.0 rebounds. He may not be the team's best player, but he has played better than anyone in key moments, such as the Final Four, save Luke Hancock. Whatever the issue, Behanan and Pitino need to resolve the situation and quick.
Kevin Ware- After one of the most gruesome injuries you will ever see, the return of Ware is near. This 6'2" junior is expected to return to practice next week—just in time for the opening of the 2013-14 season. Ware should once again hold down his key reserve role, spelling a number of Louisville's starting guards.
Ware's presence will not only add depth, but his team should rally around his return, just as they did last March following what was for some, a tear-jerking moment. Ware can once again be talked about for his play on the court, but expect replays of the fall to still be bountiful.
Best-Case Scenario: Back-to-Back National Champions
What's better than winning the national championship? Well, winning back-to-back national titles would be. That's the task the Cardinals will try to complete over the next five months. They would become the first back-to-back champs since Billy Donovan's Florida Gators won the 2006 and 2007 titles.
Louisville has no visible weakness on their roster, prompting many to believe that a third straight Final Four is in sight. What's perfect for Pitino's squad, at the moment, is how rival Kentucky is the nation's top-ranked team, taking the pressure and attention off the Cardinals, though, I would take them over UK still.
Worst-Case Scenario: Not Making it Past the First Weekend of the NCAA Tournament
If Louisville does not win the newly formed AAC, that would be a major disappointment. Though former Big East teams like Cincinnati and Connecticut won't roll over for the Cards, the conference is truly theirs to lose. Memphis and Temple should also remain competitive as NCAA tournament frequenters.
With an impressive conference record, though in a worse conference than the former Big East, Louisville should once again be a top seed come March. What they must avoid is a round-of-32 upset to a team seeded anywhere from No. 7 to No. 10. Just mention the name Northern Iowa to Bill Self and Kansas.
Prediction: 35-5 (15-3), AAC Regular-Season and Conference Tournament Champions, National Runner-Up
The Louisville Cardinals are the clear favorites to win the first season of the American Athletic Conference and should do so. The Cardinals will not go unscathed through league play, however.
Though I predict they'll win every game played at the KFC Yum! Center, three losses to the likes of Memphis, UConn and one other opponent don't seem unreasonable on the road.
The Cardinals will once again receive a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, though not the No. 1 overall. They will once again reach the Final Four—for the third consecutive season and for the second straight season advance to the national championship.
I predict that the Cardinals finish on the other side of things this national championship appearance, bowing out to Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans.