Defending champion Cardinals open campaign against Cougars

Defending champion Cardinals open campaign against Cougars

<p>The third-ranked Louisville Cardinals will hit the hardwood for the first time since winning the national championship a year ago, opening up their 2013-14 season at home on Saturday against the College of Charleston Cougars.</p>

Louisville, KY (SportsNetwork.com) - The third-ranked Louisville Cardinals will hit the hardwood for the first time since winning the national championship a year ago, opening up their 2013-14 season at home on Saturday against the College of Charleston Cougars.

Rick Pitino's Cardinals enter the season with a 16-game win streak in tow. Louisville posted a 35-5 overall record last season, with a 14-4 mark in Big East play, while winning its third national title in school history with an 82-76 win over Michigan in the championship game. Pitino has some work to do in replacing a couple of high profile players from that squad, but with All-American candidate Russ Smith, Final Four MVP Luke Hancock and an always revolving door of talent, the cupboard is still loaded at Louisville, as it embarks on its first season in the new American Athletic Conference. It may be the last as well, as Louisville could be moving to the greener pastures of the ACC as early as next season.

Doug Wojcik's first campaign with the Cougars was highly successful, as Charleston closed out its stay in the Southern Conference with a 24-11 overall record that included a 14-4 mark in league play. The team lost in the SoCon Tournament title game however, and missed out on the NCAA Tournament, instead taking part in the 2013 CIT, losing in the first round to George Mason (78-77). The Cougars are also enjoying a move this season, playing now in the Colonial Athletic Association.

The Cougars will be playing their first season in the CAA and hope to become a regular among the league's elite, much like they were in the Southern Conference. Losing First Team All-league guard Andrew Lawrence (13.5 ppg, 1.4 spg) won't be easy though. CofC does have solid depth, with the next six top scorers from last year returning, led by junior guard Anthony Stitt (11.0 ppg), who shot just over 40 percent from behind the arc a year ago. Adjehi Baru (9.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg) gives the team a presence in the paint and has obvious double-double potential on any given night. A couple of youngsters are hoping to make an immediate impact on the team as well in freshman guards Joe Chealey (6-3, 180) and Canyon Barry (6-6, 195). A redshirt freshman, Barry is the youngest son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry.

Despite raising a championship banner prior to the game on Saturday, Pitino will surely have his Cardinals focused on the task at hand. Smith's decision to return instead of jumping to the NBA will help lessen the blow caused by the departures of Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. Smith is an offensive nightmare for opponents and averaged 18.7 points per game a year ago. Still, the Cardinals won't exactly be at full strength to start the season, as Chane Behanan (9.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg) is suspended indefinitely and Hancock (8.1 ppg), who had one of the best Final Four performances in recent memory, is still a week or two away from joining the team after suffering an Achilles' tendon strain in the off-season. Shouldering the workload early on with be Wayne Blackshear (7.6 ppg), Montrezl Harrell (5.7 ppg) and juco transfer Chris Jones. The team will also get Kevin Ware back on the floor as he looks to put a horrific leg injury suffered in the NCAA Tournament behind him.

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