Louisville's Pitino confident entering ACC with 5 returning starters, needs bench to produce

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Louisville coach Rick Pitino feels good about his projected starting lineup maintaining the program's high standard of play.

Pitino's mission is developing a rotation from seven newcomers as the Cardinals prepare for their inaugural season in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference.

Forwards Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear, center Mangok Mathiang and guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones are back from last year's 31-6 team that lost to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. The Cardinals' bench returns sophomore guard Anton Gill and forward Akoy Agau, who's recovering from sports hernia surgery.

"I think we've got some good veterans; I don't think we've got a veteran team," Pitino said. "I think we've got a few veterans. That's the weakness of the team right now; we don't have enough veterans.

"The guys we do have — Wayne, Montrezl and our backcourt — they're really good basketball players. The four of those guys have been through it. ... The problem is, there's only four of them."

And those seasoned Cardinals will have a lot of responsibilities.

Pitino isn't expecting them to replace the offense left by the departures of leading scorer Smith (18.2 points per game) and perimeter threat Hancock (12.3).

If anything, scoring will have to be by committee with last year's No. 2 scorer Harrell (14.0 points) and Blackshear (8.2 points) leading the way inside with Jones and Rozier contributing from the outside. But the success of any Pitino team starts with pressure defense and mastering that phase will determine what chances the Cardinals get and whether they can be factors in a new league.

"Once everybody learns what coach really wants, we can be a great defensive team," Blackshear said. "But sharing the ball is going to play a key role. We don't have one dominant guy scoring like we did with Russ. We've got multiple guys that can score, Chris, Terry. ... We've got a lot of pieces."


Here are some other things to watch when Louisville opens the season Nov. 14 against Minnesota:

WHO ARE THOSE GUYS? Louisville welcomes a recruiting class featuring guards Shaqquan Aaron, Quentin Snider and Trent Gilbert, forwards Jaylen Johnson and Chinanu Onuaku and 7-footers Matz Stockman and Anas Mahmoud. It's a lot of new faces but fortunately for the Cardinals, the veterans have helped bring the newcomers up to speed. "They all help us learn more," said Johnson, a late arrival. "I wouldn't want to play with any other players than what's on this team."

NEW-LOOK HARRELL: Don't be shocked to see athletic power forward Montrezl Harrell taking more jumpers along with delivering basket-shaking dunks this season. He bypassed the NBA draft to return for his junior season and expand his offensive game, and the result is a potential 3-point option. "I went to work on knocking the 15-footer down consistently," he said. "I'm pleased with where my game is, but there are more things I want to add."

TOWERS OF TALENT: If the scrimmages are any indication, Mahmoud and the 6-10 Onuaku could be immediate contributors. Mahmoud, from Egypt, has shown impressive quickness, footwork and ball-handling for his size, needing only to bulk up his 200-pound frame to withstand the banging that awaits in the ACC. Pitino has declared Onuaku ready to play physically. Stockman, from Norway, is heavier but a longer-term project as he learns basketball and Pitino's system.

BLACKSHEAR'S MOMENT: After showing few glimpses of the promise that made him a high school All-American, Cardinals senior forward Wayne Blackshear vows to step up his game. Pitino named the 6-5 Chicago native team captain and has challenged him to be more aggressive.

NON-CONFERENCE TESTS: Louisville precedes the challenging ACC portion of its schedule with a series of tough non-league opponents. After opening against defending NIT champion Minnesota — coached by former Cardinals assistant and Pitino's son, Richard — the Cardinals face fellow Big Ten Conference members Ohio State and Indiana before their annual showdown with in-state rival Kentucky on Dec. 27. The Cards also travel to Western Kentucky for its lone true road matchup before league play begins.

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