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Louisville basketball preview: No. 9 Cardinals have a lot to live up to

Rick Pitino has built the Cardinals into a juggernaut. Now No. 9 Louisville needs to keep rolling even as it loses one of the most dynamic players in program history.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

No fanbase in college basketball has experienced more in the last three seasons than Louisville's.

The Cardinals went to the Final Four in 2012 only to see their season ended by a historically good team from arch-rival Kentucky. The next year, Rick Pitino received the ultimate validation as Louisville rode the hot hand of Russ Smith and the sturdy interior defense of Gorgui Dieng to become national champions. Louisville looked like it had a good shot at a third consecutive trip to the Final Four last season, but Kentucky erased a 13-point deficit to knock the Cardinals out of the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16.

At this point, Louisville and Kentucky might be the best rivalry in modern sports. While Kentucky has had the upper-hand in the head-to-head matchups, these might be the two most remarkably consistent programs in the country.

As Pitino enters his 14th season with the Cardinals, you should know what to expect out of Louisville. Over the last four seasons, the Cardinals have finished no lower than No. 4 in KenPom's defensive efficiency rankings. No team turns defense into offense like Louisville. Pitino is the master at forcing steals (finishing No. 2 in steal rate each of the last two seasons, per KenPom), closing out on three-point shooters and getting a hand in the face of any shot attempt by the opposition. When you see Louisville on the schedule, you know it's not going to be a fun experience.

After so much recent success, the Cardinals will have plenty to live up to this season. They'll have to do it without Smith, but the unexpected return of Montrezl Harrell was a gift that should help lessen the blow of losing one of the most beloved players in program history.

Harrell is college basketball's most dominating physical presence. No one dunks harder or as often. If Harrell gets the ball in close, good luck. Harrell took over 66 percent of his shots at the rim last season and converted almost 73 percent of them, per Hoop-Math. His 7'3 wingspan makes up for his relative lack of height to give him the length required to protect the rim on the defensive end. Few thought Harrell would return for his junior season as a likely first round pick in the 2014 draft, but he came back to college to work on his face-up game. If he shows any improvement in that area this season, his NBA stock is certain to grow.

The Cardinals will have a good mix of experience, youth and athleticism around Harrell. Chris Jones and Terry Rozier will lead the backcourt without Smith, and expectations there are already sky-high. Freshman Quentin Snider is a local kid who should push for playing time this season as well before hopefully becoming Pitino's point guard of the future. Another freshman, Shaqquan Aaron, could push veteran Wayne Blackshear out of the starting lineup if he can adhere to Pitino's lofty defensive standards.

With another great recruiting class set to arrive for 2015 even without Antonio Blakeney, Pitino has built a sustainable program that seems to be peaking. There are less proven players here this season than there were a year ago, but the newcomers and those expecting a bigger role each have the talent to maintain Louisville's standard of excellence. By the way, the Cardinals host Kentucky on Dec. 27. You might want to watch that one.

Projected starting lineup

PG Chris Jones, senior

SG Terry Rozier, sophomore

SF Wayne Blackshear, senior

PF Montrezl Harrell, junior

C Mangok Mathiang, sophomore

Key reserves: F Shaqquan Aaron (freshman), G Quentin Snider (freshman), G Anton Gill (sophomore), F Akoy Agau (sophomore), F Jaylen Johnson (freshman), C Chinanu Onuaku (freshman), Matz Stockman (freshman),  C Anas Mahmoud (freshman)

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How the Cardinals can go deep in March: Terry Rozier lives up to the hype

On the surface, Terry Rozier doesn't look like the future NBA lottery pick he's being billed as on the brink of his sophomore season. Rozier came to Louisville as a good-not-great recruit, ranked as the No. 74 prospect in the class of 2012 by ESPN. After a year at prep school, he made his debut last season and put up modest numbers: seven points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists on 40 percent shooting from the field. At 6'1, 190 pounds, he certainly doesn't have elite size, either.

Regardless, many are expecting Rozier to compete for a spot on the All-American team this season now that the high usage rate of Russ Smith is out of the way. Rozier tore it up on the summer circuit, particularly at Adidas Nations in Los Angeles. He's super athletic and projects as a star defender in Pitino's system. Smith had such a remarkable career that projecting anyone to fill his shoes feels a bit presumptuous, but Rozier's relatively mediocre freshman numbers haven't dissuaded anymore from questioning his future.

Rozier isn't the only returning player expected to make a big leap. Mangok Mathiang almost seems obsessed in following the Dieng's footsteps, and he's finally put on the weight necessary to make it possible. Mathiang and Dieng hail from different parts of Africa, but the bond between the two players is strong. Mathiang has reportedly gotten up to 220 pounds over the offseason, and hopes to develop a face-up game like Dieng's while remaining a key rim protector defensive.

Of the freshman, Snider and center Chinanu Onuaku have the best shot at early playing time. Aaron is the best long-term prospect, but he might have some trouble making his name as a slasher until he gets stronger. It's a team that will have a talented if inexperienced bench, but you can typically trust Pitino to push the right buttons in situations like these.

How the Cardinals could go home early: The offense struggles without Russ Smith

Smith was so ball dominant over the last two seasons that it's difficult to project what this offense will look like without him. While Pitino teams will always make their name on defense, the offense has finished No. 4 and No. 15 in efficiency the last two seasons, per KenPom.

Smith was always the engine, averaging over 18 points per game each of the last two seasons and developing more as a facilitator a year ago. Jones and Rozier have high expectations, but there's no denying Smith leaves some big shoes to fill. Maybe one of these players should shoot above 41 percent from the floor before everyone assumes they'll be a great backcourt.

Louisville's lone season in the American is over; now the program is set to join the ACC. The American was the home of the national champion last season and was better than people realized, but the ACC will still be a tremendous jump up in competition. There are potentially four top 10 preseason teams in the conference, meaning Louisville is going to have its work cut out to maintain their recent success.

At this point, there's no reason to doubt Pitino. Louisville just seems to keep getting better and better.