Rick Pitino's Cardinals, ranked No. 8 in the ESPN/USA Today preseason poll, opens the 2011-12 season Wednesday night in an exhibition against Pikeville College, who won the NAIA national title last season.
Despite opening the season without a returning starter, Pitino's team exceeded expectations last season, winning 25 games, advancing to the Big East championship game and participating in the NCAA Tournament.Now, the Cardinals return three regular starters, 66 percent of the team's scoring, 73 percent of its rebounding and 78 percent of its assists from last year's overachieving team. The additions of McDonald's All-Americans Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear, plus the return of injured forwards Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles has Louisville expecting big things on the court this season.
"We haven't proved anything, but we have a lot of guys coming back," said junior point guard Peyton Siva. "I think everybody has a collective will to win and everybody wants to win games."
Pitino seemingly has all the necessary ingredients to challenge nationally. He has returning veterans who have forged tremendous chemistry; plenty of three-point shooters and a returning group that knows how to play defense. If the Cardinals improve last year's major deficiency – rebounding – the sky is the limit.
"If we will be one of the (Big East) leaders in rebounding we will be a very good team because we're always very high in assists, steals, three-point shooting and out field goal defense last year was exceptional," said Pitino.
Pitino hopes the addition of Behanan, a 6'7 rebounding machine, a bulked up Gorgui Dieng at center and the return of Swopshire and Buckles improve his team's performance on the glass.
"We've got to play with heart and we can't get out-rebounded," Siva said. "That was the big thing about us last year. We've got to play defense and create turnovers. I think that's going to be a big key for us this year – rebounding and not having turnovers."
"I think Chane will help us out a lot at the four spot," added Siva. "He's a big guy and very skilled. Once he gets the fundamentals down and learns Coach Pitino's system I think he could be really good."
"He can give us a big lift," Siva said. "He's a great shooter from the outside and he's one of those guys who would have nine rebounds and you would never know it. He can play multiple spots and he's going to be a big factor for us."
Behanan, Blackshear, a 6'5 guard, and Zach Price, a 6'10 freshman center are expected to be major contributors this season. Behanan will start at power forward tonight, while Blackshear and Price will play key reserve roles to start the season.
"Off the court, they haven't changed our chemistry," Siva said. "We really haven't played with Blackshear, but he's a great guy off the court. He's always upbeat and a joyful guy to be around. So is Chane. The freshmen are a great group of guys. I don't think they've messed up the chemistry by any means. I think we already have a great chemistry with this team and we enjoy playing with each other."
Though Siva is the guy that makes Louisville go, Pitino said Dieng, a 6'11 sophomore center, is the player the Cardinals can least afford to lose.
"There's a major drop off when (Zach Price) comes in for Gorgui right now," said Pitino. "Zach Price is not ready to play. He's trying real hard and has a great attitude, but he's not ready to play right now from a conditioning standpoint."
If Dieng can stay on the court and out of foul trouble he could make a major impact. In Louisville's two public scrimmages, Dieng posted 49 points, 34 rebounds and nine blocks, but also had 13 fouls, though only four Saturday.
"I think Gorgui is going to be a great player," Siva said. "He's gained 40 pounds, he's worked on his post-moves and being stronger in the post. I think he's going to really help us out a lot this year."
Dieng says he's made major strides in his game since last season, when he split minutes with Terrence Jennings.
"I think I understand the game more this year than my freshman year," Dieng said. "I know the plays more and I feel more comfortable. When you're a freshman you always worry about mistakes. This year I've gained a lot of weight and I think that's going to help me and the team control the ball."
Dieng understands there is a fine line between blocking shots and committing fouls.
"I try to do the best I can moving my feet," he said. "I'm going to do the best I can do not to get in foul trouble. I'm going to keep blocking shots and try to stay out of foul trouble, it's going to be hard but I'm going to do the best I can."
Siva says he and the rest of UofL's perimeter players can help Dieng stay out of foul trouble.
"It's our job as guards and wings to keep (people) out of the paint and help him stay out of foul trouble," Siva said.
Pitino says his team has the best attitude since his 1987 Providence team that advanced to the NCAA Final Four. That attitude could be the Cardinals key intangible this season.
"We're very humble. We know we haven't done anything yet," Siva said. "We're going to try to win a lot more games than last year, but we're going to take it one game at a time. We feel that we can compete with anybody and we've got to go out there and show it."