On Wednesday, University of Louisville junior guard Russ Smith made the official announcement that he was returning to the Cardinal men’s basketball team for his final season. The Card Nation fanbase was predictably thrilled.
After winning the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Smith’s father, Big Russ, told the media that his son would make the jump to the NBA draft along with Cardinal senior Peyton Siva and junior Gorgui Dieng.
Siva’s entry is a no-brainer since he’s played out his eligibility at Louisville. Dieng, on the other hand, should he decide not to hire an agent, could return for his senior season as well.
So what’s next for the Louisville program? How do things look going forward?
With Smith returning, so do the points. He scored an average of 18.7 points per game during the championship season, including a 22.3 point average during the tournament. NBA scouts say he needs to work on the bad Russdiculous parts of his game in order to play himself above the 3rd round in the draft. Another year under Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino could get him there, particularly with improvements in his decision making skills.
Smith’s help will come from fellow returnees Chane Behanan, Luke Hancock,Wayne Blackshear, Stephan Van Treese, Montrezl Harrell, Tim Henderson and Kevin Ware who will be coming back from the horrific leg injury the entire country witnessed.
Behanan found, lost and refound his aggression in the paint during the season. If his progress continues, this time next year we could be wondering if he’s leaving for the NBA.
The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, Hancock, will provide solid leadership as a captain as well as his ability to stick the three pointer and handle the ball. That head fake that he used so effectively in the Final Four when shooting the triple is a potent weapon.
Blackshear can be an outstanding shooter at times but he’s streaky. Settling down and getting into a regular rhythm should be what he works on for the upcoming season.
Besides his vocality, Harrell comes off a stellar freshman season with a high shooting percentage. However, as Coach P points out, that’s because most of his shots are dunks. Already a physical presence inside, the next part of his game will come from intimidation. A summer of working on interior defense can do that.
Getting back an eligibility year for Van Treese can’t be anything but good for Louisville. No one considers him a scoring threat, but his knowledge of the Pitino system and well as his size, toughness and rebounding ability solidifies a spot on the team for him. Should he develop a soft hook shot in the off season, so much the better.
Louisville native Henderson gained so much confidence during the Wichita State game where his critical threes sparked the Cards could carry over to the coming season. A summer of defensive training will make his a threat off the bench.
As far as Ware’s on-court return, the timetable remains malleable. No one doubts he’ll return, the question is timing. Pro scouts already considered him to be a potential NBA player before the leg break, so there is no question of talent or heart. Ware is a potential superstar in the making.
That’s a loaded Cardinal team that could play with the swagger and confidence necessary to bring them back to the Big Dance. And this rundown doesn’t even include the stellar class of incoming players like Anton Gill or Terry Rozier who are both expected to contribute right away.
Junior college transfer Chris Jones is expected to take over Siva’s point guard spot and trigger the offense. And big man Akoy Agau led his high school team to the Nebraska state title. He probably plays behind Zach Price and Mangok Mathiang while getting his feet wet in the Cardinal system.
With that many skilled players, unselfishness will be key in 2013-14. If this group plays like last season's squad, repeating will be a distinct possibility.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton