Last year's Cardinals starters, Jerry Smith and Andre McGee, return. McGee's emergence forced 2006-07 starter Edgar Sosa to the bench. Coming in to lend a hand and plenty of depth, if not vie for a starting role this year, is Mississippi State transfer Reginald Delk. Delk started in 59 of his 65 games with the Bulldogs.
Sosa and Smith have averaged double-figure scoring in a season, Sosa in 2006-07 and Smith last year. Delk averaged 9.5 as a sophomore at Mississippi State. So there is scoring punch, too. And all four have shot at least 37 percent from 3-point range in a season, so they can dial it up from the perimeter at any time. Smith had a team-high 68 3-pointers last season, McGee was second with 52, and Sosa was fourth with 47.
The odd thing, though, is not one of the four is particularly adept at distributing the ball. Not one averaged 2.0 assists per game. But they all take reasonably good care of the ball. McGee led the team in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Sosa worked his way deep into Pitino's doghouse and had a hard time getting out. The head man expects a "big change" in the young guard. Pitino said some players take longer to mature and that Sosa, a Big East All-Rookie selection two years ago, "is finally understanding what team is all about and is maturing into the type of basketball player I want him to become."
Center David Padgett (11.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.0 apg) finished up his career, and Juan Palacios (6.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Derrick Caracter (8.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg) are gone, too. For most teams that loss of production would be a major blow, but most teams don't recruit as well or have as much talent returning as the Cardinals.
Earl Clark blossomed into a major scorer and rebounder as a sophomore last season. He posted 10 double-doubles, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he nearly doubled that total this season. He was a dominant force in the Cardinals' run to the Elite Eight, averaging 14.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots while shooting 62.2 percent from the floor during the NCAA tournament. As much as last year could be called a breakout year for Clark, bigger and better things are in store.
The other returning starter up front is Terrence Williams, the Cardinals' assist leader (4.5 per game) last season and another main scoring option. He's a 6-foot-6 all-court player who compensates for spotty perimeter shooting with his ability to put the ball on the floor, score around the rim, rebound and set up his teammates. Williams had two triple-doubles last season, just the third and fourth in Louisville history. With Padgett gone, the leadership role falls squarely on him.
The fifth starter probably will be five-star freshman Samardo Samuels, a 6-8, 240-pound power forward who will emerge quickly as a favorite because of his work ethic and diligence on the boards. He was ranked the No. 9 overall prospect in the class by Rivals.com, and No. 2 at his position. He is a force down low, where he can score with a variety of post moves and rebound. Samuels already has NBA strength. He also passes well out of the post, one of Padgett's best attributes. Samuels will vie for Big East rookie of the year honors.
The top man off the bench up front should be another five-star power forward, Terrence Jennings. The 6-10 Jennings was the No. 18 overall prospect, and No. 5 at the position. He's not as polished as Samuels, but he runs the floor very well for a player his size and can finish around the basket. He also is a big-time shot-blocker.
Pitino has a variety of offensive options. The chief creator is Williams, who can drive and kick or score in the lane. Clark can face up from 15-18 feet or score on the block. No doubt Pitino also will try to get the ball inside to Samuels on occasion.
The Cardinals are less concerned about making the NCAA tournament and more concerned about getting at least one step beyond where they finished last year, the Elite Eight. The talent is there for this to be a Final Four team. Clark, Williams and Samuels could be among the best frontlines in the country by season's end. Delk is a big-time perimeter threat, an area that was a bit of a question mark last season. The defense was spectacular at times last season, and it doesn't figure to drop off. If you look at Louisville's losses last season, they typically came when the Cardinals had trouble stopping guards, against whom Smith and McGee almost always are at a size disadvantage. If Pitino can solve that problem the Cardinals easily could find themselves in Detroit in early April.
The Cardinals ranked second in the Big East and 22nd nationally in scoring defense (61.5 ppg). Their full-court pressure and half-court trapping not only wear out opponents but also force them to go late in the shot clock. The result is hurried shots, bad looks or turnovers. When opponents are able to set up, Louisville plays an attacking man-to-man and gets into the passing lanes.
Shoes to Fill
Padgett. Pitino ran a good bit of the offense through Padgett because of his decision-making and leadership. Those are tough qualities to replace.
Must Step Up
Clark. He has NBA first-round talent. He considered leaving Louisville after last season, but he's back to ensure lottery-pick status.
Samuels. You don't find many high school players as ready to bang with the big bodies in the Big East as Samuels. He will give as much as he gets.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.