By Noah Allison–
Louisville basketball is coming off a year in which it dominated its conference.
In the one year spent in the American Athletic Conference, U of L went 31-6, with three of those losses coming to a conference opponent. Louisville went 15-3 in the AAC, won games by 10, 20, 30 and even 40 points and obliterated the AAC tournament en route to winning it. U of L defeated the 2014 National Champions and AAC member Connecticut in all three meetings last year by scores of 76-64, 71-61 and even 81-48.
The AAC is glad to see Louisville go and the ACC is glad to welcome the Cardinals. Undoubtedly, competition in the Atlantic Coastal Conference is going to be a bit stiffer than last year.
There are five ACC teams ranked in the AP’s preseason top 25, four of which are in the top ten. Louisville is ranked eighth.
Of the five preseason All-Americans, three play in the ACC: North Carolina’s junior guard Marcus Paige, Dukes freshman center Jahlil Okafor and Louisville’s junior forward Montrezl Harrell.
With all this talent, all these great players and classic programs, Louisville has no room to ease into the ACC.
The transition is made easier with a combination of five returning impact players from last year’s team and an influx of young, tall freshmen talent.
It starts with Louisville’s two captains, senior forward, 6-foot-5 Wayne Blackshear and junior forward, 6-foot-8 Montrezl Harrell. The two could not provide a more dynamic, yet Ying & Yang like balanced approach to their leadership roles.
Blackshear, was a top 30 nationally ranked high school McDonald’s All-American from Chicago and Harrell, an otherwise unheralded and less highly recruited forward from a small town in North Carolina.
Their careers though have been a stark contrast of their hype out of high school.
Blackshear has battled injuries and inconsistent play while his easy-going nature somewhat allowed his play to succumb to the attention players like Russ Smith and Luke Hancock demanded in the past. Last year, Blackshear averaged just less than 20 minutes, three rebounds and eight points a game.
Meanwhile, Harrell showed flashes of brilliance during his freshman year and last year as a sophomore captain earned the respect of his teammates and the nation with his dominant play.
Harrell set the school record with 98 dunks, led the team in rebounds with 311 and was second on the team in scoring with his 519 points and second on the team in blocks with 49. He played the most minutes out of anybody and averaged 29 minutes a game, 14 points and eight rebounds.
As a leader and player, the best thing for Blackshear’s game might be to be a senior captain. For the first time in his four-year career, the team is leaning on Blackshear’s play and he spent the offseason working relentlessly so the team can depend on him. He is athletic, can shoot from anywhere on the court and can dictate his own shot and rebound. For the first time, the offense will suit his skill set and his quiet, nice guy, lead by example attitude will be reflected by his teammates.
While the offense will suit Blackshear, it will go through Harrell. A beast on the boards and dominant in the paint, Harrell will touch the ball most possessions.
To add to his low-post presence, Harrell has picked up a jump shot and three-point shot over the offseason. His energy and communication will be spread out to every Cardinal on the court and on the bench.
With a young cast on this squad, Harrell and Blackshear are the only two remaining players that played in the national championship two years ago.
Although there are new faces Louisville will again boast one of the best backcourts in the nation. The combination of sophomore guard Terry Rozier and senior guard Chris Jones will have Louisville in good hands.
Both were first year players last year, Rozier a freshman and Jones a transfer, but the experience they gained and the chemistry they built was invaluable.
Jones averaged 25 minutes per game, 10 points a game and dished out the second most assists on the team with his 96. Rozier averaged 19 minutes a game, seven points a game and had 67 assists on the year.
The knowledge and game savvy they learned from the likes of Smith and Hancock will have this backcourt ready to step up. Rozier plays years beyond his youth and the weight Chris Jones lost over the offseason will have him quicker and harder to contain than ever.
They can both create their own shot and rebound and they will have no fear in stepping up and making a play.
Backing the two guards up will be sophomore Anton Gill who in the preseason has shown his natural ability to score and his improvement on defense. Accompanying Gill will be freshman and Louisville-native Quentin Snider.
The two backups will have to continue to improve on defense and get faster in order for Rick Pitino to start implanting his famous and ferocious press defense that was the key to Louisville’s national champion run in 2013.
While rebounding and play at the center position was inconsistent last year Louisville hopes that the center position will be stabilized this year. The projected starter will be red-shirt sophomore Mangok Mathiang who led the Cards in blocked shots last year with 51. At 6-foot-10 he averaged just three points and three rebounds a game though last year but played better as the year went on. Mathiang red-shirted the year Louisville won it all. While he didn’t play he joins the team captains in having the experience of being on a championship squad.
Backing him up will be freshman center Chinanu Onuaku. At 6-foot-10, 230 pounds, Onuaku is the physical presence one would hope for at the center position. Early on, he has showed flashes of brilliance, blocking shots and snagging rebounds, which will be the best way for him to contribute early.
Fans will be excited to see Louisville’s two 7-foot centers Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman, but more than likely this will be a year for the freshman giants to sit on the bench and learn with few minutes of playing time scattered throughout the season.
While there are plenty of new faces on this Louisville squad, the talent and experience is there for Pitino to work with. Every year provides a new challenge but the culture of Louisville basketball is prepare, play and fight.
And it’d come as a shock to many if Louisville wasn’t there fighting late into March.
Photo by Rachel Essa / The Louisville Cardinal