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Preview: No. 6 Louisville Cardinals open new season, face No. 22 Arizona Wildcats

Both the Louisville Cardinals and Arizona Wildcats are coming off successful seasons, but have since lost program-defining players to graduation. They’ll meet in the Mammoth Sports Construction Invitational. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

Louisville v Stanford
Big things are expected of Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith during her sophomore season.
Photo by Justin Tafoya via Getty Images

The No. 6-ranked Louisville Cardinals will open their 2021-22 season when they take on the No. 22 Arizona Wildcats on Friday as part of the Mammoth Sports Construction Invitational. The game will tip-off at 4:30 p.m. ET and be broadcast on ESPNU.

While two-time ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans has graduated from Louisville and is now in the WNBA, the Associated Press still showed the Cardinals plenty of love in its weekly Top 25 poll, ranking them No. 6 in the country to begin the season. Louisville, of course, has been far from a one-player show in recent seasons, and that’s expected to continue in 2021-22. ACC All-Freshman guard Hailey Van Lith looks primed to take the next step as a sophomore and will be the Cardinals’ leader in the backcourt this season, having been named to the 2022 Naismith Trophy and Nancy Lieberman Award watch lists and the preseason All-ACC Team.

Flanking Van Lith will be sophomore forward Olivia Cochran (9.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game in 2020-21), who was recently named to the 2022 Katrina McClain Award watch list, and redshirt senior guard Kianna Smith (11.4 points per game in 2020-21), who was named to the 2022 Ann Meyers-Drysdale watch list. Rounding out Louisville’s group of honorees is Emily Engstler; the senior forward was named to the 2022 Cheryl Miller Award watch list.

Don’t forget about the youngsters, either. Louisville will be welcoming freshman guard Payton Verhulst, who was named the No. 12 recruit in the class of 2021 by ESPN’s HoopGurlz.

The talented Cardinals will be faced with a tough early-season test in Arizona. In a way, the Wildcats are in the same boat as Louisville, having lost guard Aari McDonald to graduation. Arizona, however, was much more dependent on McDonald (20.6 points and four assists per game in 2020-21; 35.3 percent usage rate) than Louisville was on Evans, so there may be a harsher adjustment period for the program that made an incredible NCAA Tournament run just months ago.

That’s not to say the Wildcats are completely devoid of talent, either. Forwards Sam Thomas and Cate Reese were named to the preseason All-Pac-12 team by conference media, with Thomas also earning a Naismith Trophy watch list nomination. Junior shooting guard Taylor Chavez, meanwhile, was named to the Ann Meyers-Drysdale watch list. The transfer from Oregon and 2020 Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year figures to get much more opportunity as a Wildcat with McDonald now in the pros.

All in all, it’s a compelling matchup that is not only full of high-end talent, but also key storylines for each team. Can Van Lith build upon her success as a freshman and establish herself as one of the ACC’s best players? Will Verhulst have a large role for the Cardinals or be given some time to get her feet wet? Who will Arizona’s go-to player be to begin the post-McDonald era?

It’s all coming your way Friday on ESPNU.

Game information

No. 6 Louisville Cardinals (0-0) vs. No. 22 Arizona Wildcats (1-0)

When: Friday, Nov. 12 at 4:30 p.m. ET

Where: Sanford Pentagon, Sioux Falls, SD

How to watch: ESPNU

Matchup details: The Wildcats opened their 2021-22 season with an 87-44 victory over Northridge, a game in which Reese and freshman Aaronette Vonleh scored 14 points apiece and Arizona held its opponent to 37.5 percent shooting from the field. The pair will have its hands full with Cochran, whose total rebounding rate of 17.7 percent ranked in the 97th percentile last season. There’s also the matter of the Cardinals’ backcourt; Thomas is thought of as one of the country’s best defensive players, but the Wildcats will need to find a way to match Louisville’s balanced scoring in order to win the game.