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November 13, 2013

Dunk Dynasty

Can the reformulated Cardinals keep it cooking?

Don’t worry about Louisville. The 2013-14 Cardinals will be fine now that Chane Behanan has worked his way out of coach Rick Pitino’s doghouse and rejoined the team.

Not that Behanan is the one truly indispensable star of the team. He’s not. Louisville doesn’t have indispensable stars. It’s a team that thrives on old-fashioned teamwork, and Behanan — a strong rebounder, fair shooter and super full-court defender — is a vital cog in a team of cogs. When all the cogs mesh smoothly, Louisville whips up and down the court with the best teams in college basketball. That’s not merely this scribe’s opinion, but the forecast of many experts. Louisville begins the season ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll — which compares well to a year ago when the Cards started at No. 2 and won it all. Last year’s Cardinals mixed in enough offense with a seriously potent defense to capture the NCAA championship.

Could they do it again? Maybe.

The big question is whether this club develops the same drive and determination that propelled the 2012-13 champions. As the season dawned a year ago, everyone could feel the determination of the Louisville players. They’d gotten to a Final Four the season previous, and were — one and all — determined to win an NCAA championship. The locker room dripped with that fever, and a fan in the highest row at Yum! Center could feel it coursing up from the floor.

Haven’t really felt that yet this season.

But the top coaches are nothing if they are not great motivators, and Pitino has asked this team to help forge what he calls a “dynasty” by getting back to the Final Four again. Three years in a row, he says, will be a good start on the dynasty.

You’d think the coach wouldn’t wish to hang a word like that on himself and his team. I mean, really? Dynasty? Isn’t that just asking for opposing coaches to write that up on the chalkboard?

“I honestly believe we’re No. 2-3-4-5, whatever you want to put us,” says Pitino. “I think we’re a legitimate top-5 team, because all you’re doing now (with Gorgui Dieng gone to the NBA) is putting Montrezl Harrell in the game at 35 minutes. That’s not the worst thing in the world.”

But maybe Pitino knows what he’s doing. The best teams over time have thrived with a target on their backs. We remember Denny Crum’s 1980s juggernaut teams had total confidence. They arrived at Freedom Hall ready to win — and didn’t care a whit what an opposing coach chalked up on the board.

But all that’s to be seen. Much simpler to evaluate is talent. Louisville has a lot of top players, plenty of camaraderie, and they are fast. Top to bottom, this might be Louisville’s fastest team.

And the guards are a blur.

 

Starting with Russ Smith, who is back for a senior year tabbed as a pre-season, first-team AP All-American. Smith is the first Louisville player so honored since Pervis Ellison in 1986. The 6-foot guard averaged 18 points a game last season, a big number for a team like Louisville, which generally fans its points across the lineup.

But Russ Smith isn’t anything generally. He’s a one-of-a-kind. A New York City native, Smith was a well-known high school star, but only mildly recruited by the big college powers. Pitino knows Smith’s dad, a barber in Brooklyn, and took a chance. When Smith landed at Louisville, no one rolled out a special red carpet, and he languished as an end-of-the-bench substitute through his freshman year.

But as these things happen, Smith finally got a chance when guards ahead of him were injured. He earned more time when it became apparent that even though he was barely 6 feet and thin as a rail, he could score — when Louisville’s regulars found scoring difficult.

The more Russ played, the more he scored, and the more popular he became. Especially when he’d take the ball in amongst the Big East tall timber, bump into a redwood, and flip up a ridiculous shot — that somehow went in! Plus the free point he’d cash on the foul at the free-throw line.

No one knows if Pitino knew all along Russ Smith would find his way from the back row to the front row. But he did, and Pitino could only smile, totally tickled. The coach nicknamed his player “Russdiculous,” and the name stuck.

In the spotlight, Smith percolated with personality. He recently served an internship with WHAS-11, offering on-the-scene reports from area high school football games on Friday night — and he’s great at it. Snappy, happy and fast-paced.

Smith’s game isn’t all scoring. In 2012, he and Peyton Siva combined to form the best pickpocket tandem in basketball — keying Louisville’s full-court defense.

Here’s a stat: Last year Siva finished third in steals in the Big East Conference. Smith was fourth — and Behanan 11th. That’s three guys in the top 11 in a league of 16 teams. Almost unbelievable … until you’d see it.

What seems certain is Louisville will be more than able to replace Siva, at least physically, with a raft of new and returning guards.

“That’s our strength,” says reserve senior center Stephan Van Treese. “We’ve had so many good guards and gotten deeper ever year. Now we have the best and most guards we’ve had in any year I’ve been here. That’s where our strength starts.”

 

Slated to step in for Siva is junior college transfer Chris Jones, a small guard like Siva, but powerful. Plus, he has his own style. If Louisville’s players are mostly mild-mannered, Jones, who came up on the hard asphalt courts of Memphis, is not. He’s right there with attitude.

“I think it comes from where you’re from, make something from nothing,” says Jones. “I didn’t have no name at first. Everybody in Memphis was hollering Joe Jackson. (Jackson is now a star at the University of Memphis.) My sophomore year, I got what I needed to do. That was win a state championship over Joe. Everybody started noticing. Everybody knew I could score, but the biggest thing was, could I run the team? That’s what they say now.”

Jones says he is surprised that the notoriously demanding Pitino has “barely hollered at me in practice.”

“Of course,” he admits, “I do limit my stuff. I just take charges. Run the team. Be vocal. Make the play. Don’t try to be too flashy. Try for the right play on every possession.”

If Jones is a strong force, freshman guard Terry Rozier is smooth and slick like a bobsled on an icy course. Rozier is a natural scorer, a former Ohio All-Stater in Cleveland who chalked up 56 one night last season in prep school at Hargrave Military Academy.

But Rozier is thinking less about scoring than fitting in with another Louisville championship drive.

“It takes work,” says Rozier. “We can’t be just thinking about playing North Carolina and Kentucky. Have to think about today, like you’re on a one-day contract.”

You mean as in Pitino’s new book, “The One Day Contract”?

“Yes, Coach Pitino read us a whole chapter before practice one day. He’s serious about it.

“It was about social media,” Rozier adds. “You better not tweet nothing. You better not think about tweeting anything. But you know, he’s right. If you turn your phone off for a little bit, it helps you. Helps your mind.”

Rozier’s teammate at Hargrave, Anton Gill, who also topped the 50-point mark in prep school, is a left-handed shooter with the potential, and definitely the interest, in shooting three-point bombs. But right now, he says he’s taking his cues from Russ Smith.

“Russ is a leader,” says Gill. “It’s great to play on a team with a guy who leads by what he does, not one of those guys who’s going to get in your face and yell. He’s a little like a coach, with a great attention to detail. Little things that he does to get to the rim, to get his shot off.”

Then there’s Kevin Ware, who has who has returned to limited action after breaking his leg against Duke in the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis. Fans will recall Ware began last season slowly. His shots didn’t fall. But as he played harder near season’s end, Ware became a standout defensive sixth-man for Louisville. And his shots began to fall.

Louisville almost needs a second bench to seat all Pitino’s substitution choices. Guard Tim Henderson began his career as a walk-on, but sank a couple tough threes at a critical moment in the tournament. And when Gorgui Deng was injured early last season, Pitino called on Van Treese. The 6-9 senior is a ferocious rebounder, and every team can use one of those. Freshman Akoy Agau, from Omaha, has a tall forward’s frame but is still finding his way into the proactiveness of the college game.

The team’s tallest player is 6-10 redshirt freshman Mangok Mathiang, who was born in the Sudan but grew up in Melbourne, Australia. Classmates in high school had difficulty with the African dialectic pronunciation of Mangok, and he tried to smooth it into a more Anglicized version. “Then one day a girl said I should just call myself ‘Mango,’” says Mathiang. “I kind of liked it, too. And I also liked that girl.”

But a man called Mango is tasked with a difficult job in succeeding Gorgui Dieng. Both were born in Africa, and both tall, but they’re different kinds of players. Mathiang isn’t the intimidating shot blocker as Dieng, who could take on any player in the Big East and win.

Mathiang seems more like a tall forward, fleet of foot, and maybe more of a scorer. Pitino says Mathiang is not a good shooter, that he shoots his jump-shot on the way down from his jump. But in his first game in a U of L uniform, against Kentucky Wesleyan, Mango strode swiftly toward the basket, skied high and dropped across a little baby hook that looked very effective. A 6-10 forward’s shot.

 

A guy who doesn’t have the luxury of concentrating on just a couple good shots is Wayne Blackshear, who plays multiple positions — including starting the season at Behanan’s power forward spot. On another night he might be a wing player, attempting threes.

After averaging 32 points and 14 rebounds a game as a high-school star in Chicago, Blackshear got off to a slow start in college after surgeries on both shoulders. He hasn’t yet lit 32 on the scoreboard, but Pitino very much likes his effective defense and rebounding. The scoring could come next.

One surprise for Blackshear was winning the NCAA Elite 89 academic award.

“I was very excited about that,” Blackshear says with a terrific smile breaking across his face. “You know, it caught me off guard. It was announced during the Final Four, and I didn’t know it was coming. But my mom, she was very excited for me. She wanted to cry. I called right after I won the award and she was so excited.”

Another guy with a memorable moment in Atlanta was Luke Hancock, who became the first non-starter to be named the most valuable player of the NCAA Final Four. Hancock’s play peaked when he electrified a NCAA record crowd of 74,326 in the Georgia Dome with four threes in a two-minute span that helped Louisville come from behind to defeat Michigan 82-76 in the final game.

Like a kid’s playground dream.

“That’s it, that’s really it,” says Hancock, looking back. “The second one, I felt pretty good. I shot the third one and I was pretty deep, and I just felt great after that.”

Hancock has been slowed by an Achilles heel injury and will miss games at the beginning of the season.

Behanan lives for the challenges of a big game, too. He wants to score, and he loves picking passes in the press. But sometimes the big work is rebounding. While Hancock was bombing the basket, Behanan was cleaning the glass.

“Coach (Kevin) Keatts came to me at halftime and said, ‘If you don’t get 10 rebounds tonight, we’re not going to win this game,’” says Behanan, who ended with 12 rebounds and 15 points. “I had to play my ‘Cincinnati,’ and buckle down and get those rebounds.”

Behanan equates his hometown Cincinnati with being “tough.” But Pitino wishes Behanan would bring a little less Cincinnati to his life.

“I was never concerned about Chane the basketball player,” says Pitino, who reinstated Behanan after 30 days of exile. “He’s extremely respectful, he’s a good guy, he’s a good teammate, he’s an excellent basketball player. But he just has a very difficult time understanding life’s values and the significance of life’s values, and we’re going to try to help him along … We want to see him prosper as a person as much as he is prospering as a basketball player.”

Montrezl Harrell burst onto the stage for Louisville like a meteor arriving from space. With Louisville trailing rival Syracuse by 15, Harrell, a freshman reserve, was tossed into the Big East cauldron — and ended up burning down the Carrier Dome. The 6-8 forward threw down dunk after dunk, not merely helping the Cards catch up, but rally the team to victory pulling away.

And the dunk remains Harrell’s calling card. While the open slam is really kind of passé today, in that it is usually the result of a defender losing his man, Harrell brings his dunks along as booming bass notes that rock the arena. Not so much by their velocity, but their timing.

Now Harrell is a starter, poised to be Louisville’s next star.

“His level of play right now is off the charts,” says Louisville assistant coach Keatts. “His ‘motor,’ if you look at it, there have been comparisons to who Montrezl plays like. 

I think he’s (ex-North Carolina star, now with the Toronto Raptors) Tyler Hansbrough, who plays so hard. A guy who just comes in with his hard hat on every day and raises everybody’s play — and makes you look bad in practice if you’re not ready to play.”

And Harrell does like his dunks.

“I do,” says Harrell. “I kind of feel like, I’ve got the ball, I want to DO something. And dunking is what I do.”

Harrell seems to have an innate ability to get the jump on his man, and sometimes appears to be breaking for the basket even before a teammate makes a steal. Like he knows when they’re coming.

“I know my first step is going to be my best step,” says Harrell. “In high school, I did track, and my coach taught me to get going where I’m on that first step. And I’ve been using that ever since. That’s my quickest step, and then when I get past my man, it’s over.”

And the other Cards have picked up on it.

“They see me every day, and they know how I am — and I know how they are,” says Harrell. “When I see them moving in on the ball, I’m taking off. And they know whenever they put the ball up there, I’m going to get it. You throw the ball, even on the other side of the rim, I’m going to get it.”

End of story?

“When I catch the ball,” says Harrell, “there’s no two ways about what’s going to happen.”