CRAWFORD | Cards running behind, but fired up for KWC opener - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Cards running behind, but fired up for exhibition opener

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville basketball team will begin its exhibition basketball season Tuesday night, but Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino says it is a bit behind schedule.

"We are behind a week or two in teaching," Pitino said on Monday. ". . . We've had a lot of little injuries. We've been going at it pretty hard and the guys have paid the price."

The latest is transfer point guard Chris Jones, who has been spotted around campus in a walking boot, but Pitino said it's more of a precaution than anything and listed Jones as the starting point guard for Tuesday's 7 p.m. exhibition game against Kentucky Wesleyan in the KFC Yum! Center. Tim Henderson, who had 17 points in the Cards' last scrimmage, has a badly jammed finger and might miss the exhibition.

"He is (in a boot)," Pitino said of Jones. "We've had a lot of little nagging injuries. They put you in a walking boot just for the day, so you can practice."

Nonetheless, Pitino said he expects Jones to start at guard against KWC, along with Russ Smith. Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell, named the team's third captain by Pitino on Monday, and Stephan Van Treese at center, also are expected to start.

It's not the lineup the Cards will play with when at full strength. Pitino said Luke Hancock had his final MRI Monday morning and that his foot injury is "definitely almost healed." He expects Hancock to begin practicing sometime this week, though he won't play in the exhibition game.

Also back on the court is Kevin Ware, who Pitino said began individual instruction two days ago and who should also return to practice sometime this week.

"He looks good," Pitino said. ". . . You always worry about the psychological aspect of it, but he's pretty good right now. I don't think he's going to be bothered too much psychologically. I think he wants to get out there and play. He dunks the ball with relative ease, that tells you right there. In the beginning he was landing on one foot with his jump shot, now he's landing on two. He's healed. His leg is as good as your leg or my leg."

The lone other missing player is Chane Behanan, out on an indefinite suspension. Pitino said Behanan's timetable for return has not changed and remains a question, but that he's happy with the progress the junior forward has made.

"I have no idea when he's coming back, but I am really, really pleased because this is incorporating a lot of changes in his life that had to be made," Pitino said. "One was discipline, another was being on time, being early, I should say, another was respecting everything you do in the right way, understanding that your team has high expectations of you, and then even to time management. There's a lot of positives coming out of this. He's always been good for the team, but these changes he's making in his daily life are going to be such a positive for him. You don't like to see anyone suspended indefinitely, but I think this is going to be about as good a thing as ever happened to him, because he's going to be a better person away from the lines. And by that I don't mean he's a bad person -- he's always been a terrific young man. But in terms of responsibilities -- because he is a dad -- this is a Godsend for him, everything that is happening."

As for the team, Pitino said he's interested to see how it looks when it finally faces outside competition on Tuesday. From officiating to how the Cardinals' players at the center position compete, he still has some unknowns to deal with on what he says is a much different team from last season's, a "higher-maintenance" team.

It's certainly a team that has more players who have the ability to create their own offense.

"One day Russ Smith looks like the best guard, the next day it's Rozier," Pitino said. "The last three days in a row it's been Chris Jones. Last week it was Tim Henderson. So these guys are getting after each other really hard and the great thing is you can't tell who your best player is based on today. And the other great thing is they're fierce -- and I mean fierce -- competitors."

Inside, Pitino said that redshirt freshman Mangok Mathiang continues to make progress, but that Van Treese has earned the start at center, and that coaches are "embarrassing" him into improvement by putting him on a treadmill every time he passes up a shot.

But Harrell remains the primary interior threat, a fact underscored by Pitino's decision to make him a captain even though he's just a sophomore. Pitino said his effort is at 100 percent, not just in every practice, but on every play, and that he wanted to reward that.

Harrell also has become more vocal, particularly on defense.

"He's a very much improved basketball player," Pitino said. ". . . He was a good runner, jumper, dunker, shot-blocker. Now he's an improved passer, better ballhandler and a much better shooter. He leads every which way. He's a tough guy. . . . I just think he's a perfect power forward."

The Cardinals will get their first competition of the season against a KWC team led by new coach Happy Osborne, the longtime coach at Georgetown. Osborne has averaged 30.4 wins per season in 15 years as a college head coach, and has never failed to win at least 25 games.

KWC also will begin play in a new conference this season, leaving the Great Lakes Valley Conference for the new Great Midwest Athletic Conference.

Pitino and Osborne will meet for the fifth time, with Pitino's average victory margin at 11.5 points.

"Playing against yourself each day you really can't judge how good you are until you play against outside competition," Pitino said. "And in this game, we have no idea what they're going to run, and that helps you as well because your players have to spontaneously react to an offense and how to defend it. So there's a lot of curiosity behind this game and we're excited. Happy Osborne's teams have always played us tough."

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WDRB Sports journalist Eric Crawford is a 22-year veteran of covering sports in the region and recently was voted LEO's Readers' Choice Award for Best Local Columnist. He co-authored Rick Pitino's new book, The One-Day Contract, and chronicled the University of Louisville's 2013 National Championship season in an electronic book, The Run. You can follow Eric on Twitter by clicking here, or on Facebook here.

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