It's not often that a National Championship team could lose two of its top three scorers and come back as a serious contender to repeat. But the Louisville Cardinals will likely start 2013-14 ranked in the top five and will be an early favorite to end the season in Dallas at the Final Four.
Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng are both in the NBA, but guard Russ Smith returns as arguably the best backcourt player in the country. Meanwhile, Kevin Ware has been cleared to practice after his gruesome injury in last year's NCAA Tournament. His return might be the most highly anticipated of any bench player in the country. Chane Behanan, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear will also see significant minutes this season.
Russ Smith, Sr.: Smith will be the unquestioned go-to player for the defending champs, and with good reason. He averaged a team-high 18.7 points per game last year and led the Cardinals in scoring in five of their six NCAA Tournament games. Some have criticized his decision making, especially under pressure, but the senior has the ability to take over games with pure talent. Smith can play either guard position -- he was second on the Cardinals last year with 116 assists -- and will likely run the point at least sometimes while the younger guards adjust to the college game.
Terry Rozier, Fr.: Many think the freshman can start right away at point guard. He's been scouted mainly as a scoring point guard, so when he's in the lineup with Smith, the Cardinal backcourt could be lethal. Rozier can shoot the three or create for his teammates, giving coach Rick Pitino another confident option late in games.
Anton Gill, Fr.: Gill is the second high-profile guard in Pitino's 2014 recruiting class. He and Rozier have big shoes to fill with Siva's departure, but Gill should be a huge help. The 6'4 freshman thrives in the open floor, getting out to run and finding the open man with ease. Gill might start the season behind Rozier on the depth chart, but that doesn't mean he won't see serious minutes.
Kevin Ware, Jr.: By now, we all know Kevin Ware's story, but some might forget where he fit into this Louisville team last year. No, he was not a star and he doesn't figure to be one this year, either. But he was a consistent threat off the bench and stepped in when necessary to give guys such as Smith and Siva a rest. Expect him to see even more playing time this year.
Luke Hancock, Sr.: When we last saw Hancock, he was being named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2013 Final Four. He started just eight games last year, but had a team-high 22 points in the National Championship game against Michigan. He'll probably spend more time in the starting lineup this year as one of the team's best returning three-point shooters. Hancock made 40 percent of his 158 attempts last year.
Wayne Blackshear, Jr.: Blackshear is another experienced player coming back to Louisville this year. He started 34 of the 39 games he played in 2012-13, averaging 7.6 points per game. He led the Cardinals in scoring in four games last year, including a 19-point performance against now-AAC foe Rutgers.
Chane Behanan, Jr.: Behanan enters 2013-14 as a consistent double-double threat. He averaged nearly 10 points per game last year and is the team's returning rebounder. The 50 percent field goal percentage doesn't hurt, either. Though he's listed at 6'6, Behanan can play the 3 or the 4 spot and will likely start the bulk of the Cardinals' games.
Akoy Agau, Fr.: Agau is just another major freshman get for Pitino this year. He's not much of a threat to score yet, but is touted as a solid rebounder and shot-blocker. He might not see a ton of time right away, but can develop into a regular threat off the bench as the season wears on.
Montrezl Harrell, So.: WIthout a true center on the roster, Harrell will likely see the most time in the middle. He posted 5.7 points per game last year and blocked 27 shots -- the most of any returning player. The highlight of his 2012-13 season came in the Big East title game against Syracuse, when he scored 20 points and pulled down seven rebounds.
Stephan Van Treese, Sr.: Van Treese was the Cardinals' primary backup at center last year and he will probably fill that role again in 2013-14. He may be called on to do even more now that Dieng isn't there to hold down the middle.