(AP) -- Coach Rick Pitino said coming into the season this Louisville team is as talented and as deep as he's had in a decade.
Many agree, the Cardinals are ranked ninth in the preseason poll heading into their opener Friday night against Tennessee-Martin. They are expected not only to contend in the Big East, but also make a run at a ninth Final Four appearance.
Three starters and 11 lettermen return for the Cardinals, including point guard Peyton Siva (9.9 ppg, 5.2 apg) and senior wings Kyle Kuric (14.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and Chris Smith (9.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg). They'll likely be joined by center Gorgui Dieng and freshman power forward Chane Behanan to round out the starters.
But injuries have derailed the Cardinals' depth and the frontcourt is especially thin.
Louisville suffered a major blow two weeks ago when the school announced freshman Wayne Blackshear will miss the season with a torn right labrum. The 6-foot-5 wing was expected to figure prominently in the rotation and replace some of the scoring lost from last year's leader, Preston Knowles.
The frontcourt has been hit hardest.
Rakeem Buckles will miss another 4-6 weeks after tearing his right ACL on Feb. 27. Stephan Van Treese has not practiced this fall after straining his left patellar tendon. Jared Swopshire, a starter in 2009-10, missed all of last year with a groin injury and has yet to return to the player he once was.
Guards Elisha Justice, Tim Henderson and Russ Smith have also missed time.
"That starting five, they're ready to go, especially at the offensive standpoint," Pitino said. "The next five, it's been very difficult getting them ready."
Siva was named to the preseason All-Big East second team but Pitino said Dieng, a 6-foot-11 sophomore from Senegal who averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds last year, is the one player his team can't afford to lose. Dieng played at 212 pounds last season but has come into this season at nearly 240.
Behanan joins Dieng upfront. Pitino has high praise for his 6-foot-6 freshman from Cincinnati.
"He's as good a freshman as I've coached since (Jamal) Mashburn in terms of talent," Pitino said after Behanan led the Cardinals with 16 points in their first exhibition. "That's about as good a statement as I can possibly say. So I'm very pleased with his attitude, very pleased with his game.
"But he is a freshman and he has to learn."
Behanan and Swopshire each scored 14 points in the Cardinals' final preseason game, an unimpressive 62-54 win over reigning Division II champion Bellarmine last Thursday.
Behanan and his teammates will be tested early and often this year.
The Cardinals play 16 games against teams that made last year's NCAA tournament, including out-of-conference tests against No. 2 Kentucky, No. 7 Vanderbilt and No. 11 Memphis. The Big East schedule brings No. 4 Connecticut to Louisville and home-and-home matchups against No. 5 Syracuse and No. 10 Pittsburgh. Louisville must also travel to No. 21 Cincinnati and No. 22 Marquette.
"We are talking a lot about our schedule and how we have to be ready very early on for probably one or two of the most difficult schedules in the nation," Pitino said. "They know that. We don't talk about expectations though."
The first game, though, isn't expected to pose much of a challenge.
Tennessee-Martin is coming off a 12-21 campaign and enters this season without one player who has more than one year of Division I experience. The sophomore trio of Terence Smith, Mike Liabo and Troy King is expected to lead the Skyhawks after combining to average more than 31 points last season.
Tennessee-Martin, which lost its two games against ranked teams last season by a combined 82 points, fell 78-51 at Louisville in 2005 in the only meeting between these programs.
A summer trip to the Bahamas allowed the Cardinals to pick up 10 extra practices that Pitino said was crucial in preparing for the grueling schedule. The only solace comes from 14 of Louisville's first 15 games at home. A trip to Butler on Nov. 19 is the Cardinals' only 2011 road test before a New Year's Eve game at Kentucky.
Pitino said he's enjoying coaching more now as he nears his 600th collegiate victory for three reasons. His team's throwback attitude that turned last year's "bridge year" into an unexpected 25-10 season where they nearly beat eventual national champion Connecticut in the Big East tournament final has continued.
The coach is trying to savor what could be the last year with the current Big East lineup, one he calls the best in basketball. And he knows there may not be many more chances to contend for a national championship.
"You have to have more passion now because you know your window is going to close some day," the 59-year-old Pitino said. "So you have to enjoy it more and more, whether it's six, seven, eight years, whatever it may be."
Updated November 10, 2011