Rick Pitino still intends to celebrate after miraculous Final Four run with Louisville. (Photo courtesy of New York Times)
Following a season last year in which his team had to use its managers during practice to make up for the multitude of injuries that had befallen them, Rick Pitino would have been more than satisfied with just getting Louisville back to the NCAA Tournament. What he received was far greater than anyone would have expected.
Fresh off their second Big East championship in four years, the Cardinals went to their second Final Four under Pitino, disposing of former national champions Michigan State and Florida along the way before narrowly losing to Kentucky. For a coach like Pitino who has taken four schools to the field of 68, and one of only two (John Calipari being the other) to guide three programs to a national semifinal, this latest run gives the 59-year-old even more of a case for the Hall of Fame induction he most certainly deserves.
"They made me really, really proud," said Pitino shortly after his team was eliminated last week by Kentucky. This run was no different from last season, as several Louisville players were injured at one point or another; namely swingman Mike Marra, lost for the season just two games in. With one of their shooting threats unavailable, Pitino's two seniors stepped up in more ways than one. Kyle Kuric, a role player through each of his first three seasons, became the Cardinals' leading scorer with averages of 12.6 points per game and 33 percent from three-point range; while Chris Smith, a one-time Manhattan College transfer, shot 40 percent from beyond the arc and drained clutch shot after clutch shot during Louisville's run. Fellow guard Russ Smith (no relation) averaged over eleven points per game off the bench in his sophomore campaign, and is well on his way to becoming the latest in a long line of exceptional Pitino guards. Speaking of backcourt prospects, junior point man Peyton Siva had by far his finest season in the Commonwealth. The Seattle native may have only averaged nine points per game, but his biggest strength lies within the way he facilitates the Cardinal offense. With an average of close to six assists per game, Siva enters his final year as one of the best point guards in the Big East. Louisville also has Wayne Blackshear back for a full season after the freshman wing made a significant impact down the stretch.
Up front, the Cardinals lose Jared Swopshire to graduation, but bring back Rakeem Buckles for one more year to provide depth for arguably two of the better forwards in the conference. Chane Behanan will enter his sophomore season coming off a rookie year that saw him average over nine points and seven rebounds per contest while posing a matchup problem for opponents simply due to his brute strength. Behanan will be joined by Senegalese sensation Gorgui Dieng, who comes off a dominant second campaign that saw the 6-10 big man average over three rejections per night to establish himself as the Big East's premier shot blocker. Dieng backed it up offensively as well, with averages of 9.1 points and rebounds per game to give Pitino a solid six scoring threats on a team that went 30-10 when all the dust settled on a miracle season.
Louisville only has one commitment at the moment, and it comes from six-foot point guard Terry Rozier, who turned down Cincinnati and former Pitino disciple Mick Cronin to play for the Cardinals. Louisville also picks up the services of forward Luke Hancock, who sat out this past season after transferring from George Mason. Hancock is said to have impressed Pitino and his staff in practice thus far, and is considered a lock to be part of the starting five next fall. Already ranked as high as second in some early preseason polls, Louisville already has a lot of momentum to build on for next season. Hopefully for Cardinals fans, the team can stay healthy throughout the year and give Rick Pitino even more leverage for what will ultimately be a spectacular Hall of Fame career once he finally gets enshrined.