Editor's Note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: Louisville. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.
Last month in Atlanta, Louisville won the national championship with depth, tenacity, stubborn defense, talent and will.
From mid-February on, the Cardinals showcased an unmatched fortitude. Few expected an easy road to the title, but Louisville clearly had the edge in every postseason matchup that threatened to disrupt its mission.
And the Cards were the last team standing at the Georgia Dome. Most of the critical characters in that run -- Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and Chane Behanan -- will return. Key reserves Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear are back, too.
Entering 2013-14, the preseason favorite to win the national title will be the best team in Kentucky. And the Cardinals have a case in the debate, even though Kentucky coach John Calipari essentially signed the Charlotte Bobcats.
Smith and Co. can repeat.
But there’s a lot of pressure on Behanan, the most important returnee for the team.
When focused, he’s a terrorizing post presence. We saw that in the Final Four.
Hancock earned most outstanding player honors but Behanan was a stabilizer for the program in the Final Four. He had 10 points and nine rebounds in his team’s victory over Wichita State in the national semifinals. He had 15 points, 12 rebounds and a steal in Louisville’s national championship game victory over Michigan.
In those two games, we witnessed the potential that could make Behanan a preseason All-American. He’s a rugged forward who will be expected to give Louisville productive minutes next year.
It’s difficult to single out one contributor on a roster with Louisville’s talent.
And with Harrell and Blackshear playing bigger roles, they’re possibly a more versatile squad.
Behanan, however, has to be a catalyst. A reliable catalyst. He’s better than the 9.8 PPG and 6.5 RPG he averaged last season.
He can be a double-double guy – consistently – for Pitino. He can be a more stubborn interior defender, too.
If there’s one question about next year’s team, it’s continuity. Last year’s crew displayed a special brand of cohesiveness.
Why? Siva was a mature leader who kept things together on the floor and off it. Dieng had an admirable level of poise and concentration.
Who will lead now?
Well, I think Pitino will turn to multiple players to fill that gap.
Behanan, the same player he suspended for a violation of team rules at the beginning of last season, is certainly on that list.
He matured throughout the season. But the Cardinals need him to sustain the level of concentration and determination he had in the Final Four throughout the 2013-14 campaign.
He has to be an anchor for a program with a legitimate shot at back-to-back national titles.
Behanan is on the radar of multiple NBA teams. He considered turning pro after last month’s championship run but wisely chose to return.
A strong season would elevate his draft stock and it would position Louisville to defend its crown.
The Cardinals will need Behanan to show up every night to achieve the latter.