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    The University of Louisville men’s basketball team is coming off the most successful three-season run in its storied history.

    From 2011-14 the Cardinals went 96-21, winning an impressive 82.1 percent of their games. In that span they were 12-2 in the NCAA Tournament, winning it in 2013, making the Final Four in 2012 and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen last season.

    However, as UofL prepares to embark on the 2014-15 season most of the players who led the Cards to those victories are gone.

    Peyton Siva’s not walking through that door. Russ Smith’s not walking through that door. Neither are Gorgui Dieng or Luke Hancock.

    “All those guys, they just bought into a culture, they just had great heart,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said recently.

    Can this team continue that trend?

    We’ll find out, at least in some degree, starting Friday night when UofL meets Minnesota (which is coached by Pitino’s son, Richard) at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Armed Forces Classic in Puerto Rico in its season-opener.

    Only Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell remain from the national title team. A great deal is expected of both. For Blackshear, the 6-foot-5 swingman who averaged 8.2 points per game last season, it is his now-or-never senior season. For Harrell, the 6-8 junior power forward who averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last season, it is his time to live up to the preseason All-American hype and continue to make his game NBA-ready.

    Meanwhile 5-10 senior point guard Chris Jones (10.2 ppg, 2.9 apg last season) and 6-1 sophomore guard Terry Rozier (7 ppg), whom many expect to have a breakout season, will play larger roles this season after the graduation of the brilliant/ridiculous Russdiculous (a.k.a. Smith). In the preseason Pitino has repeatedly said that he wouldn’t trade the two for any other starting backcourt in the country.

    Those aforementioned four will be the core quartet for the Cards, who also lost Hancock, Stephan Van Treese and Tim Henderson to graduation and Kevin Ware to transfer from a team that went 31-6 and lost to archrival - and eventual national runner-up - Kentucky by five in the Sweet 16.

    “I think we’ve got some good veterans, I don’t think we’ve got a veteran team,” Pitino said in the preseason. “I think we’ve got a few veterans. That’s the weakness of the team right now; we don’t have enough veterans. But 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. They know what it is to win conference championships, they know what it is to go to Final Fours. The problem is there’s only four of them. They’re going to play, unless they’re in foul trouble, they’re going to play the bulk of the minutes.”

    They’ll have to if Louisville is going to live up to expectations as it prepares for its inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Cards are ranked No. 8 in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 and No. 9 in the USA Today Coaches preseason poll.

    While UofL’s strength will definitely be on the perimeter with Jones, Rozier, Blackshear and sophomore Anton Gill, who’ll be the first guard off the bench, Harrell will need help inside.

    “We’re nowhere near where we need to be. I mean, this is the weakest, physically, we have been in the last four years,” Pitino said. “From a physical standpoint, we’re very weak right now.”

    Sinewy big man Mangok Mathiang (3.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg) is the only other returning player with starting experience. Pitino has high expectations for the 6-10 redshirt sophomore.

    “Mangok’s gotten better,” the coach said. “What I’m hoping is that Mangok can give us what Montrezl gave us last year - a lot of blocked shots, a lot of dunks , just a lot of hustle plays.”

    Akoy Agau, a 6-8 sophomore forward who has been oft-injured, is the only other returning frontcourt player with experience. And it isn’t much.

    UofL has a big freshman class (seven), but only a couple are likely to contribute. They are 6-10 Chinanu Onuaku and 7-0 Anas Mahmoud, who surprisingly started Louisville’s second exhibition game.

    “We’re not going to play a lot of freshman because they’re not physically, and mentally, not ready to play,” Pitino said. “Unfortunately we have six-seven players who don’t understand that culture at all. So until those young guys learn what we’re all about, not so much plays, not so much offense and defense, it’s all about giving every single thing you have.”

    Guard Quentin Snider, a Ballard High School grad, could add depth to the backcourt while 6-9 forward Jaylen Johnson could see some minutes as well. Seven-foot Matz Stockman is a redshirt candidate, while 6-7 guard Shaqquan Aaron, the highest rated of UofL’s recruits, currently has eligibility issues.

    UofL’s schedule is difficult, to say the least. Its pre-conference schedule is highlighted games against preseason No. 20 Ohio State and No. 1 UK. Then its ACC slate includes Duke and North Carolina, both consensus Top 6 teams, and a home-and-home against preseason Top 10 Virginia.

    “We have no margins for error,” Pitino said. “We’re going to play 20-to-25 games this year where it’s going to go down the other final two minutes of play, there’s not a doubt in my mind with that.

    “So we’re really going to have to focus in on being a good free throw shooting team, understanding what to do in game situations, time and score wise, so it’s going to have to be a very smart team. I told those guys, you’ve got to grow up mentally because this schedule, it’s not like last year’s schedule, right from the get-go.”

    It gets going Friday night against Minnesota.

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