LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville's revamped backcourt is already showing a toughness the Cardinals hope will serve them well as they prepare to defend their national championship.
No Louisville guard might be more resilient than junior Kevin Ware, still recovering from his horrific leg injury sustained during last year's NCAA tournament. Ware has yet to practice, but his rehab has progressed to the point where he plans to dress for the Cardinals' Nov. 9 opener against College of Charleston.
Until Ware returns, senior and leading scorer Russ Smith, junior transfer Chris Jones and freshman Terry Rozier are prepared to maintain Louisville's reputation for pressure defense. The Cardinals' newcomers also showed their offensive skills as they try to replace point guard Peyton Siva, whose floor leadership and defense were crucial in winning the title.
During Saturday's media day the attention was on Ware, who looked very happy shooting around with teammates as he works to get back on the court.
"I feel good," Ware said in his first appearance with the media since Louisville's win over Michigan in Atlanta in April. "I'm just ready for Nov. 9, honestly. I'm ready for the opener."
Ware is rehabbing six days a week with a regimen including defensive slide drills and jumping rope on one leg. He can now leg press 205 pounds.
He's ready to join Smith, Jones and Rozier in what could be one of the nation's deepest and strongest backcourts.
"I kind of feel like we're stacked at every position but the guard play is really going to dominant scoring the ball," Ware said. "I feel like all of us can get in the paint and draw fouls, but at the same time all of us can shoot the ball. It's going to be trouble for whoever's guarding us."
The newcomers led the Red team to a 70-65 win in Saturday's second intrasquad scrimmage. Jones had 24 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists while Rozier had 14 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. Rozier's midcourt steal and subsequent dunk with 18 seconds remaining sealed the win.
Smith led the White team with 22 points and eight assists.
Cardinals coach Rick Pitino was pleased with his new players' tenacity, as they combined for 15 rebounds in the scrimmage.
"Those two guys, you don't look at their size. You look at the size of their heart," the coach said. "They're big-time players. I love those two kids."
Jones, a 5-foot-10 junior and last season's junior college player of the year, and Rozier, a 6-1 freshman, join Smith with the task of filling Siva's shoes.
"These are really tough kids," Pitino said. "These are not your run-of-the-mill guys where they bend. They're tough guys, every one of them. Chris Jones, Russ Smith, Terry Rozier, they are tough kids. They don't back down to anybody."
Pitino added that the trio's modest upbringings and relatively small statures have helped shape their tough court mentality.
"If you're growing up and your parents are giving you the keys to your BMW, you're probably not going to be too tough," he said. "When you don't have a whole lot in life, then you've got to fight for everything you get. You're going to have toughness. These kids aren't growing up with silver spoons in their mouth."
Said Jones of his Memphis roots, "coming from where I'm from and always being the smallest guy, I had to be tough in my neighborhood. It's brought me a long way."
Tim Henderson, Louisville's walk-on famous for his two 3-pointers against Wichita State in the national semifinal win that propelled the Cardinals toward their third title, even got a shout-out from Pitino for his hustle Saturday that resulted in black eye that required an ice pack after the game.
Rozier sees that as encouraging for a backcourt trying to maintain its swagger.
"We've already got tough big men," Rozier said. "We've got guys like Chane (Behanan) and Montrezl (Harrell) so if you've got tough guards to go along with that, we'll be a tough team to beat."