A highly-anticipated season for Louisville gets underway as the No. 2 Cardinals host a tough Manhattan Jaspers squad at the KFC Yum! Center this afternoon.
Of all the games on Manhattan's schedule this one has got to be the most anticipated for the Jaspers. A look at the rest of the schedule doesn't have Manhattan playing any other team that is currently in the top-25 let alone the second-ranked team in the country. The Jaspers are no slouches themselves though coming off a strong campaign a year ago when they finished 21-13 overall and 12-6 in league play. The Jaspers really stumbled down the stretch though with losses in five of their final eight regular season games.
In his 11 seasons at the helm for Louisville, Rick Pitino has turned the Cardinals into a regular to the NCAA Tournament and last season proved no different. However, the Cardinals' path, which ended in a Final Four appearance, was not exactly traditional. Sitting at 22-9 at the end of the regular season after losing three of its final five regular season games, the Cardinals didn't look like a Final Four team. Eight straight wins and a Big East Conference Tournament title later and the Cardinals found themselves there. Now the Cardinals are a team of which a Final Four, and possibly more, is expected in 2012.
This is the first meetings between these teams since 2002. In that contest Louisville routed Manhattan 89-62 to win its fourth straight in the series. Overall the Cardinals have won five of six all-time matchups.
Having all five starters return from a 20-win team is a situation any coach would be lucky to have. Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello is one of those coaches. George Beamon (19.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg) is by far the most important holdover after he led the team in scoring. The 6-4 swingman shoots well from just about everywhere on the floor (.486 FG percentage). His size allows him to get inside and score but he has the ability to put it in from beyond the arc effectively as well (.427 3FG percentage). With Beamon leading the show Manhattan was the third best scoring team in the conference (71.2 ppg). Other important returnees are leading rebounder Emmy Andujar (8.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and point guard Michael Alvarado (8.5 ppg, 3.2 apg). Andujar wasn't a prolific rebounder but fit in well for the Jaspers who rebounded consistently well across the board last season. The Jaspers were the second-best team on the boards in the MAAC (35.0 pg).
Pitino really got the Cardinals to commit on defense last season. The Cardinals held opponents to only 61.0 points per game and the sixth lowest field goal percentage (.384) in the nation. That type of defensive intensity should continue, especially from the inside. Gorgui Dieng is the reason for that. The 6-11 center was absolutely dominant inside (9.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg) and will make any player think twice before getting into the paint, as he swatted 3.2 shots per game. Dieng is on a short list of potential Big East Player of the Year candidates especially if he can produce more on the offense. Peyton Siva is another star who really blossomed during the Cardinals' run in the postseason last year. Siva (9.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 5.6 apg) runs the point in Pitino's offense but needs to be more consistent in limiting turnovers. Charles Behanan is a solid scorer and rebounder (9.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg) on the inside and Russ Smith (11.5 ppg) is the top returning scorer and has already shown his ability to play in concert with Siva. George Mason-transfer Luke Hancock (10.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.3 apg) adds further depth.