Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Former Hidden Valley standout ready for the big stage

Louisville coach Rick Pitino says Luke Hancock, a George Mason transfer, is "as good as anybody on our basketball team" on offense.

Luke Hancock (right) guards Wayne Blackshear in a preseason intrasquad scrimmage. Hancock, a former Hidden Valley star, scored 29 points in the Cardinals' second intrasquad game last month.

Photo courtesy of Louisville

Luke Hancock (right) guards Wayne Blackshear in a preseason intrasquad scrimmage. Hancock, a former Hidden Valley star, scored 29 points in the Cardinals' second intrasquad game last month.

When he played for George Mason, Luke Hancock was a standout in the Colonial Athletic Association.

But now the Hidden Valley graduate is on a much bigger stage.

After sitting out last season under the NCAA's transfer rules, the fourth-year junior is poised to play a significant role for a Louisville team that is expected to reach the Final Four for a second straight season.

Coach Rick Pitino's squad is the No. 2 team in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll. The Cardinals play in the Big East, perhaps the best basketball conference in the land.

But Hancock is ready for the challenge.

"There's no doubt in my mind," he said in a phone interview. "I've put in the work. Coach Pitino brought me here for a reason. I'm confident in myself.

"As far as being on the big stage, it's not my first rodeo. I've been under the lights before. I'll be ready to go."

Pitino said Tuesday that Hancock will start at small forward Sunday in Louisville's season opener against visiting Manhattan.

"He's ready offensively right now to be a major contributor," Pitino said. "He's as good as anybody on our basketball team."

Hancock will get to play on national television this season against such teams as Kentucky, Syracuse and Notre Dame. Louisville highlights will likely be on ESPN's "SportsCenter" every time the Cardinals play this season.

"I had a great time at Mason, but รข? this is another level. I'm excited for the challenges of the Big East," Hancock said. "I just can't wait. I've been sitting out a long time."

Because coach Jim Larranaga left George Mason for Miami in April 2011, Hancock decided to leave the Patriots as well. In May 2011, he picked Louisville over Virginia, Michigan, South Carolina, Marquette and Virginia Tech, among others.

Under NCAA rules, Hancock could practice with the Cardinals last season but wasn't allowed to play in games.

Now he gets to suit up for a team that returns star point guard Peyton Siva and two other starters from a team that won the Big East tournament before advancing to the Final Four in New Orleans.

"I'm in a good place as far as the city and the team and my role on the team and how much success we had last year and how much I hope we have this year," said Hancock, who has an older brother who lives in Louisville. "I kind of look around sometimes and feel like, 'Yeah, I definitely made the right decision.' I'm pretty blessed to be in the situation I'm in."

He has made the preseason All-Big East third team in Lindy's basketball preview magazine.

Hancock expects to get most of his playing time at small forward and off-guard. Louisville needs replacements for last season's starters at both of those positions. He could also see some action at point guard.

The only players who will likely start every game are Siva and center Gorgui Dieng, said Pitino, with the other starting spots depending on matchups and practices. But he said there is "no question" Hancock will be in his rotation even in games he does not start.

Pitino said Hancock is "way behind" when it comes to playing Louisville's trapping style of defense, though.

"He comes out of his stance - he plays a one-man zone," Pitino cracked. "He'll get better because he's a very smart basketball player.

"I don't think he's ever going to be a strength [on defense]. I just don't want him to be a liability."

Hancock suffered a dislocated right shoulder in an April pickup game, resulting in surgery. He said his shoulder is about 90 percent.

In the team's second intrasquad scrimmage last month, Hancock had a game-high 29 points while making all four of his 3-point attempts and 11 of his 12 free throws. He had 18 points, five assists and three 3-pointers in the third intrasquad scrimmage.

"I was somewhat of a playmaker at George Mason, which is kind of the same [role] here, but I have a lot more confidence in my shot," he said. "I feel comfortable being able to shoot it whenever I'm open - sometimes when I'm not 100 percent open."

Hancock started in Louisville's exhibition win over NAIA member Pikeville last week, scoring six points, dishing out five assists and grabbing four rebounds.

"He's going to fit in very well for us," said Louisville assistant coach Kevin Keatts, Hancock's former coach on the Hargrave Military Academy postgraduate team. "He'll be a big part of our success this year. He's tough to keep off the floor because he does so many good things.

"At the end of the night, you look at the stat sheet and he's in every category. He's not one of those guys who's great at anything, but he's really good at lot of things."

Hancock did not receive a single Division I scholarship offer when he played for Hidden Valley. So he spent a postgraduate year playing for Keatts at Hargrave, which resulted in offers from George Mason and other schools not in major conferences.

He started at small forward for George Mason as a sophomore in 2010-11, when he made the All-CAA third team. He averaged 10.9 points and led the Patriots in assists. He had 18 points and made the winning 3-pointer in the Patriots' victory over Villanova in the round of 64 in the 2011 NCAA tournament.

Keatts' presence on the Louisville staff was a big reason Hancock eyed the Cardinals when he decided to leave George Mason. After Hancock told Keatts he was interested in Louisville, Pitino watched film of Hancock and talked to Larranaga about him.

His George Mason stint gives Hancock confidence he can help Louisville.

"I've played Big East teams. I've played ACC teams. I've been in the big tournaments," Hancock said. "I am battle-tested."

Being part of Louisville practices last season is another reason he is confident.

"I didn't just go to school. I went through every practice and film session, weight room, team meeting," he said. "I was at basically everything except a handful of road games.

"I've been through everything with these guys. I'm looking at a picture right now of us after we knew we were going to the Final Four and I'm right there with all these guys, celebrating and having a good time with them. Obviously it's a little different not being on the court, but I feel like I've been through plenty of battles with these guys."

Pitino chose Hancock and Siva the co-captains of this year's team.

"Peyton is the type of guy that if you mess up, the next day he'll sit you down and speak like Father Flanagan would" Pitino said. "Luke's not that type of guy. He'll get in your face and tell you you're doing the wrong thing."

Larranaga said Hancock's move could result in other players seeking to jump from mid-major leagues to the power conferences.

"If he has a great year at Louisville, other kids at the mid-major level will say, 'If Luke can do it, I can do it,'" Larranaga said. "He's going to lead them back to the Final Four. He's a heck of a player."

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