The college basketball season is finally upon us. We’ve waited since April for our beloved schools to return to action, and Friday will mark the tip of the 2014-2015 season. While most of the teams open their season against the scrub schools of the world, No. 8 Louisville will open its season with the most intriguing matchup of the opening night against Minnesota.
Minnesota is a team that has the potential to make a lot of noise in the Big Ten this season. They are returning four senior starters, which for any program could be immensely beneficial. The defending NIT Tournament Champions know what it takes to win, and their senior leadership is going to carry them far into the tournament come March. Guard Austin Hollins’ last season was held back by a “severe” ankle sprain, before which he was averaging over 16 points per game. He will look to exploit the Louisville guards and demonstrate his ability. Head coach Richard Pitino pushed hard to get this game on the schedule so that he could prove how far the Minnesota program has come.
The Cardinals return four starters as well, though only one of them is a senior. For a team that felt as though they were bounced from the tournament a tad early by arch-rival Kentucky, they will try to use this game as a display of their return to power. Junior forward Montrezl Harrell and sophomore guard Terry Rozier both hope to be lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft, and they have an opportunity to get off to a great start in a big game versus a big time opponent. The other starting guard for the Cardinals, senior Chris Jones, is looking to prove that he’s worthy of the praise he’s received thus far in the preseason, earning top 50 rankings in most preseason player rankings.
The matchup between the Cards and Gophers, which tips off at 7:30 on ESPN, has some major keys to focus on:
1. Battle of the Pitino Family – Louisville’s head coach, Rick, is the father of Minnesota’s head coach, Richard, and the two know each other’s games very well. Richard started his coaching career as an assistant for Rick at Louisville, so he is well aware of what the Cardinals will try to do. He’s perfectly familiar with the high speed, pressing, attacking style Louisville plays, so if he can help Minnesota figure out how to beat that, they have the potential to pull off a major upset.
2. The veterans – Minnesota’s four returning starters are well versed in what it takes to win. Last season, the Gophers finished with 25 wins last season, and eventually found themselves as NIT Champions. They are perfectly aware of the precision and performance needed to secure wins in big games, but this could be their biggest one until conference play. If they are to pull off the upset against the Cardinals, they will need to act like seniors; be precise, don’t make mistakes and keep the tempo under control.
3. Athleticism – Before addressing Louisville, let’s establish that we’re not dealing with a team of incapable athletes when we reference the Gophers. They are all exceptional athletes, perfectly capable of running the floor with ease. However, the Rick Pitino era has proved that Louisville seems to never tire, and the press is seemingly never ending. If you don’t believe me, reference the 60 point blowout of Rutgers last year in the AAC Tournament. Louisville is filled, top to bottom, with guys who could be the best athlete on the floor, had they not been surrounded by their teammates.
Prediction: Minnesota will challenge Louisville due to their experience. They are not likely to be fazed by the press like other teams might be. However, at some point, they will turn the ball over, which is where Louisville thrives. Harrell is bound to take over this game at some point, and give Louisville a few major momentum swings when he throws down a dunk, and screams into the camera afterwards – something he’s become (in)famous for. Of course, I’m a bit of a homer, but I completely expect Louisville to cover the 8.5 point spread.
*Section Photo credit to Andy Lyons, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Jamie Rhodes, USA Today Sports