After the fourth-seeded Cardinals fell 62--61 to heavy underdog Morehead State in the NCAA tournament's round of 64 last March, sophomore guard Peyton Siva was too upset to watch the rest of March Madness. For a few days, anyway. "But then I decided to turn on the TV," Siva says. "I wanted to watch Kemba [Walker] and learn about situations and how to handle them in the tournament." It was a wise choice, not only because Walker directed UConn to the championship but also because this year's Louisville squad is similar to last season's Huskies: a scrappy team with no household names (yet) and a storied coach looking to add another title to his portfolio.
Rick Pitino calls last season's "overachieving" 25--10 squad one of the weakest in his 10 seasons in Louisville. This year, he says, "we have more talent in a lot of key areas." Though high-scoring freshman wing Wayne Blackshear is out for the season with a shoulder injury, freshman Chane Behanan, a burly, 250-pound forward, is deceptively athletic and perfectly suited for Pitino's fast-paced, aggressive style.
Experience will also help. Three starters return, including the 6-foot Siva, who will spearhead a running and pressing attack that last season led the Big East in steals (327). "I like to know [the opponent's] offense inside and out," Siva says, "so I can tell their point guard, 'Nope, you're not running your play right.'"
But the Cardinals must improve their shooting, especially at the free throw line, where they hit a Big East--low 66.3%. Senior swingman Kyle Kuric is the top outside threat; he was the team's leading scorer in the second half (15.1 points in the final 13 games) and made 44.9% of his threes in 2010--11. The rest of the Cardinals, however, fired just 34.2% from beyond the arc, and they kept firing: Louisville's 854 three-point attempts led the conference by 143. Siva, a 27.2% long-range shooter last season, traveled to Dallas to work out with longtime friend Jason Terry of the Mavericks during the playoffs. Terry helped Siva with his balance and counseled him on shot selection. "He watches all my games and lets me know what I need to do," says Siva.
With one of the country's top defenses and a rapidly improving offense, Siva & Co. won't be just watching the tournament's final games come March. They'll be playing in them.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
COACH Rick Pitino (11th season)
2010--11 RECORD 25--10 BIG EAST 12--6 (4th)
NCAA TOURNAMENT Round of 64
*High school stats
608 ASSISTS BY the Cardinals last season, tops in the Big East and third best in the country. Since coach Rick Pitino came to Louisville in 2001--02, his teams have the 11th-most assists in the nation.
Unselfishness on and off the court translates into a Big East title and a deep March run, as super freshman Chane Behanan meshes well with this veteran team.
Rick Pitino's feud with Kentucky's John Calipari becomes a distraction. The Cardinals can't close out games and finish near the bottom of the conference.
PEYTON SIVA Already an elite defender, the junior guard enlisted an NBA star to help him improve his shooting form.