By Donny Yaste–
The last time the University of Louisville basketball team took to the court they were upset by Murray State University. U of L would also go on to lose their leading scorer, Preston Knowles, and top big man, Terrence Jennings. Most Cards fans would see this as a reason to panic going into the 2011-2012 season, especially with 17 nationally televised games on the schedule that was released Aug. 31. This year’s schedule includes possibly the toughest out of conference matchups in Coach Rick Pitino’s tenure
at U of L. However, a preseason trip to the Bahamas, a good core of returning players and a top ve recruiting class should give Cards fans optimism.
The Cards return a group of four players that all played major minutes for last year’s team. Those four are sophomore center Gorgui Dieng, senior guard Kyle Kuric, junior guard Peyton Siva and senior guard Chris Smith. Kuric and Smith along with Siva will captain Rick Pitino’s 2011 team. Their leadership was evident to all throughout the practices leading up to the Bahamas trip and during the games. However, Dieng may be the most important of the four as he’ll look to replace the hole in the middle left by Terrence Jennings. So far Dieng has added a good deal of weight and he has returned with some new post moves, which he showed off in the Bahamas. However, Coach Pitino wants to see more, saying Dieng was, “stronger and improved, but still has a long way to go in the strength department.”
The Cards also return a good group of role players from last year’s team. That group includes junior forward Rakeem Buckles, junior forward Jared Swopshire, junior guard Mike Marra, sophomore guard Elisha Justice, junior forward Stephen Van Treese and junior guard Russ Smith. Marra especially showed an improved shot that was much more consistent and even got into the paint some during the Bahamas trip. Justice, Buckles and Swopshire were all injured during the Bahamas trip but will be needed this season. Van Treese also had improved his shot and was sporting a much improved mid-range game. But Smith may have made the biggest splash during the Bahamas trip. He moved to shooting guard and has been scoring at an alarming rate. In the three scrimmages, he scored 26, 14 and 22 points respectively. “I find it very easy to score,” said Smith, “It’s the other parts I have to work on to become a key player.”
No group of players will be expected to improve as quickly as the incoming freshman. The class of incoming freshman includes guard Wayne Blackshear, guard Kevin Ware, forward Angel Nunez, center Zach Price and forward Chane Behanan. Behanan will be expected to improve the most as he’ll be counted on to be the starting power forward. In the Bahamas he showed fans a lot as he finished well around the rim, ran the floor well and even mad a few threes. Nunez is very raw and needs to add some weight, but in the Bahamas he showed a lot of potential. That potential already has Coach Rick Pitino comparing him to former Cardinal Francisco Garcia, who is Nunez’s idol. Price is a lefty center, with a developing post game and he’ll be needed to backup Dieng. His former high schoolcoach, Jeff Morrow, believes his conditioning will be a big part of that, saying, “He’s got to get used to getting up and down a little faster.”
Perhaps most interesting though are the two freshman who didn’t go on the Bahamas trip. Both Ware and Blackshear are expected to provide major minutes, Ware at point guard and Blackshear at shooting guard.
Possibly the biggest challenge though will be making sure all these pieces, old and new, fit together. After that maybe Coach Pitino will worry about the schedule and the loss of some key players. However, fans should remember Coach Pitino is one of the best coaches ever. This coupled with the great opportunity the Bahamas trip provided, should allow fans to be very optimistic for the upcoming season.
Photo: Michael Baldwin/The Louisville Cardinal