Louisville's bid to repeat as national champion was dealt a major blow Thursday when coach Rick Pitino announced that power forward Chane Behanan is indefinitely suspended for a violation of university policy.
Pitino opened his news conference by saying Behanan was "off the team," but later said he was suspended. Pitino said he consulted with athletic director Tom Jurich, who had the final call. He added that Behanan will not play in November, and he doubts he will play in December.
"He's a lovable guy, but if we don't do something now he's not going to prosper in life," Pitino said. "This is not about basketball, it's about Chane Behanan becoming the person he can become.
"It's an accumulation of a lot of different things, a lot of little things that when you add them up, it's pretty big. … When you're going for a third Final Four and your team has bought in 100 percent to reach these lofty goals, and one person hasn't bought in … he's letting the team down. He's letting 12 other guys who have very lofty goals down by his behavior."
Earlier in the day Louisville debuted in the USA Today coaches poll at No. 3, behind Kentucky and Michigan State. But taking Behanan out of the mix could drastically alter the outlook for the Cardinals.
The junior was tied for the team's third-leading scorer last year at 9.8 points per game and the No. 2 rebounder at 6.5 boards per game. He was especially important in the Final Four, averaging 12.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in victories over Wichita State and Michigan.
In Behanan's absence, Pitino said junior wing player Wayne Blackshear will shift to the power forward spot. Blackshear averaged 7.6 points and 3.1 rebounds last year, but at 6-foot-5 is a bit undersized for an interior position. However, Pitino pointed out that Louisville went to the Final Four in 2012 with guard Kyle Kuric seeing significant minutes at power forward, and that Blackshear is better equipped for the spot than Kuric.
Pitino also said he will try to accelerate the readiness of freshmen big men Akoy Agau (6-8, 235) and Mangok Mathiang (6-10, 200). Pitino has frequently compared Mathiang to departed center Gorgui Dieng, who arrived at Louisville a raw prospect and left a first-round NBA draft pick. Mathiang was on campus last year and redshirted.
For now, the middle will belong almost entirely to sophomore Montrezl Harrell – who is expected to have a breakout season – and senior Stephan Van Treese.
There are other unknowns on the Louisville roster that are health-related. Pitino said swingman Luke Hancock, Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, has missed practice time due to an Achilles tendon injury. Pitino said Hancock is staying in shape in the pool but is still 10-14 days away from being able to practice.
"He's gone from a very average swimmer to an outstanding swimmer," Pitino joked. "It doesn't help our basketball team, but he's a good swimmer."
Guard Kevin Ware, whose compound fracture of his leg during the Midwest Regional final against Duke last year horrified and captivated the nation, is still working on his return as well, Pitino said.
"I don't expect Kevin to play in the month of November," he said.
Louisville has time on its side from a schedule standpoint. Aside from a likely meeting with North Carolina in the Hall of Fame Classic on Nov. 24, the Cardinals should be heavy favorites in every game until visiting Kentucky on Dec. 28.
So they should theoretically survive a short-term loss of Chane Behanan. But if he misses the entire season, it will be a major blow.