University of Louisville

John Clay: Smith's return aligns Louisville with Kentucky at top

Kentucky Coach John Calipari, left, and Louisville Coach Rick Pitino shook hands before Kentucky defeated Louisville 69-62 on Dec. 31, 2011, in Rupp Arena. Calipari led Kentucky to the national title that season. Pitino would take his team to the title the next year.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari, left, and Louisville Coach Rick Pitino shook hands before Kentucky defeated Louisville 69-62 on Dec. 31, 2011, in Rupp Arena. Calipari led Kentucky to the national title that season. Pitino would take his team to the title the next year. Herald-Leader

The stage was already set for epic.

Then, on Wednesday, Russ Smith made Louisville "Russdiculous" for 2014, announcing that he would bypass the NBA Draft — Russ doesn't like to pass, you know — in favor of another year at Yum.

"The pros for staying were so much more than the pros for leaving," the star guard said, with a beaming Rick Pitino by his side.

October 15 is nearly six months away, but let the debate begin: Who is the pre-season No. 1?

Kentucky, with its sensational six-pack of incoming McDonald's All-Americans for what could be the greatest freshman class of all time?

Or Louisville, with now 73.5 percent of its scoring back from a national title team?

Let's break it down:

U of L backcourt: The River City rightfully celebrates Smith's return — he's the reigning Midwest Region MVP, after all — but Pitino must replace heart-and-soul point guard Peyton Siva with either Chris Jones or Terry Rozier, a pair of Redbird rookies.

The former is a 5-foot-10 junior-college transfer. The latter is a 6-1 five-star prospect who spent a year at Hargrave Military. Both can score, as can 6-3 newcomer Anton Gill, who also honed his skills at Hargrave, Pitino's new pipeline.

Then there's Kevin Ware, whose horrific leg injury overshadowed the fact that he was just starting to come into his own.

UK backcourt: Ryan Harrow's exit was no surprise considering his oil to Coach John Calipari's water. Plus, Harrow's playing time was slotted for pine time with the twin-pack of Andrew and Aaron Harrison set to step on campus in the fall.

Andrew is rated as the nation's fifth-best prospect by Poor Aaron is a whole two spots back at No. 7.

Add fresh face James Young, a 6-6 wing wonder ranked No. 11 overall by Rivals and known for his outrageous scoring ability.

And don't forget solid senior-to-be Jarrod Polson or the dogged Dominique Hawkins, who willed Madison Central to the state high school title in March.

Louisville frontcourt: Last time we saw Chane Behanan, the former Bowling Green High star scored 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the second half of U of L's One Shining Moment win over Michigan.

Last time we saw Luke Hancock, he was cradling the Final Four Most Outstanding Player trophy. Hancock is more of a wing, but he also is the headiest player in all of college basketball. When Bob Knight closes his eyes, he sees Hancock's shot fakes.

Then there's Wayne Blackshear, who merely started 34 games for the national champs. Add Montrezl Harrell, whose first year afforded Pitino punch off the bench.

Kentucky frontcourt: Give it up for Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer, taking on the challenge of returning while knowing that their minutes are about to shrink. The competition will do both good.

After all, incoming 6-9 forward Julius Randle is considered Texas gold, No. 2 on the Rivals rankings board.

He could double up with Marcus Lee, the 6-9 Californian ranked 19th by Rivals, to give the Cats a whole new frontcourt. It's not as if Calipari is afraid to play freshmen.

In-state stars, one old (Jon Hood) and one new (Derek Willis), give Calipari something he had very little of last year: more choices.

Louisville middle: After taking Gorgui Dieng out of the Senegal rough and turning the 6-11 center into a diamond of an NBA prospect, Pitino now must do the same with Mangok Mathiang, a 6-10 redshirt freshman from Sudan by way of Australia.

Akoy Agau, a 6-9 rookie out of Nebraska, ranked 87th overall by Rivals, could see time in the post, as could valuable reserve Stephan Van Treese.

Kentucky middle: Nerlens Noel and his high-top fade no longer patrol the UK paint, but 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein returns, ready to work on his upside. Plus, he likes school.

Meanwhile, freshman Dakari Johnson, a 6-10, 265-pound mountain out of Florida, is considered a "true" center who figures to plug the doughnut hole. Listed at No. 9 by Rivals, Johnson is one of four top-10 players to put his name on Kentucky's dotted line.

And, oh yeah, there is ridiculously talented Andrew Wiggins, who might yet cast his lot with the Big Blue.

Even if Wiggins resists, it's no big deal since Wednesday's big deal — Smith staying — made December's rivalry renewal an even bigger deal.

Who's the pre-season No. 1?

If you go by potential, it's Kentucky.

If you go by production, it's Louisville.


Player Ht. Yr.

Willie Cauley-Stein 7-0 So.

Dominique Hawkins 6-1 Fr.

Aaron Harrison 6-5 Fr.

Andrew Harrison 6-5 Fr.

Jon Hood 6-7 Sr.

Dakari Johnson 6-10 Fr.

Marcus Lee 6-9 Fr.

Brian Long 5-9 Jr.

Sam Malone 5-11 JR.

Jarrod Polson 6-2 Sr.

Alex Poythress 6-7 So.

Julius Randle 6-8 Fr.

Derek Willis 6-9 Fr.

Kyle Wiltjer 6-10 Jr.

James Young 6-6 Fr.

Note: Kentucky is awaiting a decision from No. 1 prospect Andrew Wiggins, a 6-8 swingman who lists the Wildcats among his final four schools.


Player Ht. Yr.

Akoy Agau 6-9 Fr.

Dillon Avare 5-11 Fr.

Michael Baffour 6-2 Sr.

Logan Baumann 6-0 So.

Chane Behanan 6-6 Jr.

Wayne Blackshear 6-5 Jr.

Jordan Bond 6-0 So.

Anton Gill 6-3 Fr.

Luke Hancock 6-6 Sr.

Montrezl Harrell 6-8 So.

Tim Henderson 6-2 Sr.

David Levitch 6-3 Fr.

Chris Jones 5-10 Jr.

Mangok Mathiang 6-10 Fr.

Zach Price 6-10 Jr.

Terry Rozier 6-1 Fr.

Russ Smith 6-0 Sr.

Stephan Van Treese 6-9 Sr.

Kevin Ware 6-2 Jr.

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