GARY B. GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville has reloaded and ready to chase another national championship.
The Cardinals’ return several veterans and have added newcomers who are expected to contribute immediately to the team’s title defense.
Third-ranked Louisville begins its 100th season Saturday against the College of Charleston intent on proving last season’s title run was just the beginning. The Cardinals carry over a 16-game winning streak as well as many regulars with several more due back soon; then there are the new faces acting like they’ve been around for a while.
The combination could be scary for opponents who believe Louisville isn’t the same dominant defensive team that ran the table last spring. In a way they might be right: the Cardinals’ offense is better as well.
“We’ve got guys that are experienced and have been through Big East tournaments twice and Final Fours, so just that alone helps,” junior forward Wayne Blackshear said.
“Bringing in the new guys and their different talents, it just brings a lot to the table.”
Junior Chris Jones, a 5-foot-10 guard and last year’s junior college Division I player of the year, is expected to set the table for the Cardinals. The former Tennessee signee has shown the ability to run the point as well as predecessor Peyton Siva, now with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons.
Though senior and leading scorer Russ Smith (18.7 points per game) has been working on his game and can distribute the ball, shooting is where he helps the Cardinals most. Fortunately for Smith, he might get more offensive consistency from Jones.
With a poster of former NBA All-Star Allen Iverson on his wall back home in Memphis, it’s not shocking that Jones similarly challenges bigger defenders inside. More encouraging for Louisville is his shot selection and a smooth jumper that could draw some defensive attention away from Smith.
“If I’m wide open for a jumper, I’m going to shoot,” Jones said on Louisville’s media day. “If a guy comes up, I’ll go past him. If another big guy comes up, I’ll drop it off or dunk. It’s just about the situation with me.”
That’s no small matter for a Cardinals’ backcourt needing a successor to Siva. Though Louisville’s depth and morale got a huge boost Wednesday night with Kevin Ware’s return from the gruesome right leg injury sustained during the title run, he just resumed full contact practice this week and will need time to get fully comfortable
Senior guard/forward Luke Hancock, the Final Four MVP and a perimeter threat, is still out with an Achilles tendon injury. Until he’s back and in shape, Smith must lead the way while acclimating Jones and promising freshman Terry Rozier, another good shooter, to coach Rick Pitino’s way of doing things.
“You just have to tell them going it’s to be OK,” Smith said of working with the youngsters. “You don’t want to lose your vital points and this year our freshmen are our vital points.”
Louisville’s inside game looks solid with Blackshear finally over nagging shoulder injuries while sophomore Montrezl Harrell looks ready to take the next step at power forward. The 6-8, 240-pounder will have to step it up during junior Chane Behanan’s suspension expected to last at least through the season’s first month.
What Pitino wants most is for senior forward Stephan Van Treese to be more assertive and provide a post presence while 6-10 redshirt freshman Mangok Mathiang learns the position. Like 6-11 predecessor Gorgui Dieng, also in the NBA, he has the potential to be a good shot blocker and rebounder but must learn the game.
“Things that sometimes you take for granted when you grow up playing the game, he doesn’t have that right now,” Pitino said of Mathiang. “But he’s a willing learner and will pick it up. We’re just way behind in that area right now.”
Finding offense could be easier this year for Louisville because of its blend of veterans and freshmen. The Cardinals shot 51.6 percent in Wednesday’s exhibition win over Pikeville and committed just 10 turnovers, a nice way to head into the season.
Most important for the Cardinals is building toward their main goal of being a better team when the postseason rolls around. Ragged as things appear now, Louisville has shown a knack for smoothing things out and players believe they have the combination to get it done — as champions tend to do.
“This time of year there is always something,” Van Treese said. “It’s going to be different because obviously we’re going to have a target on our back this year.”
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