Things have not been particularly good for Rick Pitino in the past year or so. Sure, there were the, um, “personal issues” from last summer that made it into the news and caused him, his family and his employer great embarrassment. But perhaps more important for the college basketball fan, and Louisville fans specifically, he has had some high profile recruiting failures of late as well. Pitino has made little secret of the fact that he has been aiming for a big recruiting class for 2011, but got bad news earlier this offseason when Marquis Teague, the number four ranked recruit in the ’11 class, announced his commitment to John Calipari and Kentucky. On the heels of that came Samardo Samuels’ announcement that he would remain in the NBA draft despite signs pointing towards him going undrafted, or at the very least getting picked in the second round and not receiving a guaranteed contract. While Samuels never fully lived up to his billing at Louisville, he’ll still be a major loss for this Cardinal team. He averaged a team high 15.3 ppg and 7.0 rpg last season and will leave a hole in the interior for the Cards.

Junior power forward Terrence Jennings should be first in line to take Samuels spot in the middle. Jennings is a great athlete and an excellent defender, especially sending opposition shots back, but is still very raw offensively. Junior small forward Jared Swopshire can be expected to start alongside Jennings in the frontcourt. Swopshire is along and skinny who is constantly in need of more strength, but he is a versatile player with good athleticism, a nose for the ball and range out to the three-point line. When the game calls for more toughness up front, sophomore Rakeem Buckles may get the first call. Buckles didn’t get a ton of minutes as a freshman, but he is probably the best rebounder on the team, and may even be more polished offensively than Jennings (faint praise, I know), with a nice little jump hook and a monster finisher around the rim. Additional returning frontcourt help will be offered by junior George Goode and sophomore Stephan Van Treese.

In the backcourt, Cardinal mainstays like Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith have moved on, so sophomore point guard Peyton Siva, a highly touted recruit who didn’t get a ton of run as a freshman, will need to be ready to contribute. Siva made his name as a high-schooler in Seattle for being a true point, with plenty of defensive quickness and three-point range, but turned the ball over far too much in his first season to ever earn Pitino’s trust. If Siva is able to earn a starting spot, he’ll likely join senior guard Preston Knowles in the backcourt. Knowles is an excellent perimeter defender, and combined with Siva could present opposing ballhandlers with serious problems. Knowles is also capable of initiating offense, and while not a spectacular offensive player, is solid. Sophomore guard Mike Marra, a dead-eye shooter, can challenge for a starting spot, especially if the Cards again run a three-guard offense, but more likely will be asked to provide a spark off the bench. Junior Kyle Kuric, a good mix of surprising athleticism and a nice jumper, will also be in the mix in the back court. Both Marra and Kuric came up with big games at big times for the Cards last season, with Marra providing four threes in the first of Louisville’s upsets of Syracuse and Kuric adding 22 points on four threes and four dunks in a stretch of just under 14 minutes in their second upset of the Orange in the final game ever played at Freedom Hall.

Pitino does have some reinforcements coming in as well to add to the existing talent. The most ready to play immediately is small forward Justin Coleman, a superior athlete with a ton of ways to score in the lane. It is likely that he’ll see minutes right away (and speaking of right away, the Cardinals open their season and their new arena by hosting the Butler Bulldogs at the KFC Yum! Center on November 16), and could even wind up with a starting spot provided he makes a commitment on the defensive end. Center Gorgui Dieng is a 6-10 recruit from Senegal and a prep school teammate of Coleman’s. Dieng, like many recruits out of Africa, is somewhat raw offensively, but a terrific shotblocker. The final two recruits in this year’s class are 5’11 point guards: Russell Smith and Elisha Justice. Justice is a true point with great court awareness and vision, a potentially underrated recruit that could make a splash in college. Smith, however, is more of a scoring point (and a confident one at that), a guy who needs the ball in his hands to be effective and is able to create for himself off the dribble. He’ll likely need to get stronger before he gets a lot of playing time and is a good candidate for a redshirt, especially after undergoing relatively minor knee surgery this offseason.

Finally, for now, there is also talk that former Memphis guard Roburt Sallie is in the process of transferring, and that Louisville (along with Indiana) is a possibility for his final destination. Sallie has one year of eligibility remaining and will be able to play immediately wherever he winds up, since he already has his undergraduate degree. Sallie is a streaky shooter and fine athlete who could definitely help Pitino find some points from somewhere.

There is less apparent talent on this Louisville team than there has been in a long while, and 2010-11 will be a good chance to see just how good of a coach Pitino is. He’ll need to get major improvement out of Siva and Jennings, and even then, will need to patch together some lineups and hope for outbursts from guys like Kuric and Marra again. The Cards will not compete for a Big East title, and may be far closer to the bubble than anyone associated with the program is comfortable with, but I see them sneaking in the back-end of the tournament, and maybe even playing in our first go-round with the bubble team play-in games.

 


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