Just six months ago, the Louisville fanbase lost its collective mind as the nets came down in Atlanta following their Cardinals' first basketball title since 1986. Not quite immediately, but certainly within a couple of weeks, the talk turned from "we finally did it again" to "we can do it again next year." Following Russ Smith's decision to return for his Senior season, the realization of the remaining, returning talent, and the expectations and accolades draped on incoming talent, the preseason commentary of grandeur seems very realistic.
Entering the season ranked #2 by the Associated Press and #3 by the Coaches, the Cardinals have lofty expectations nationally, just as they did last season. Coach Rick Pitino has supported those expectations, stating goals of a third straight final four and referencing a second tattoo, the first coming as a result of promising to do so if his team essentially went undefeated and won the championship following their instant-classic five overtime loss to Notre Dame last February.
Although Louisville appears to have all the weapons, and the coach, to cut down the nets in Dallas next April, repeating as national champions is not an easy task. In fact, it's only been done twice since John Wooden's UCLA teams did it in the early-70s: Duke in 1991-92 and Florida in 2006-07. Both returned talent-laden teams and stars choosing school over the NBA draft, which the 2013-14 Cardinals are also doing.
But, what exactly is special about this Louisville team after losing NBA draftees, Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng? Here are some opportunities the Cardinals will need to capitalize on to position themselves for the elusive repeat:
- Hall of Fame Coach: Rick Pitino had the the best year of his career in 2013 by winning the national championship, being elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, having a partly-owned horse run in the Kentucky Derby, and seeing his son, Richard, accept a big-time job as Minnesota's head coach following a successful season turning around the program at Florida International. Simply, Pitino is riding a wave of success and energy that no one expects to burn out anytime soon.
- Returning Talent: Here, we have to start with Russ Smith, who has risen from 2-star recruit to preseason All-American. Clearly, an entertaining personality in college basketball, Russ is also one of the most productive scorers AND defenders in the country. His goals include better shot selection and improved passing. Although Russ may draw the most attention on the team, Montrezl Harrell is drawing the most interest from NBA scouts. His long frame, wound motor, and intense work ethic have him projected as a lottery pick after this, his sophomore season. Luke Hancock, the 2013 Final Four MOP, returns as a Senior co-captain with healthy shoulders and a highly-accurate three point shot, which he showed off this summer on the USA World Championship Games team. Former McDonald's All-Americans Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan (more about Chane coming up) are Juniors along with Kevin Ware who will be returning to the national spotlight from his horrific leg injury last season. Seniors Stephen Van Treese and local hero Tim Henderson round out the returnees.
- Incoming Talent: A major question has been how the Cardinals will effectively replace Peyton Siva. Enter a pair of guards that have lacked national attention due to the routes they individually took to Louisville. Chris Jones initially committed to Tennessee out of high school as a top 40 recruit, but the small-statured dynamo opted for Junior College after Bruce Pearl's dismissal. Two years later, he's primed to take over at point guard as the reigning JUCO Player of the Year. Terry Rozier finished high school as Louisville commit and a top 70 recruiting ranking. However, he took a one year detour through Hargrave Military Academy to hone his academics, while also elevating his basketball skills. Now, Terry arrives in Louisville sporting a top 20 recruiting rank in the 2013 class. Just a few weeks in to practice, Pitino has commented how impressed NBA scouts have also been in Rozier. Alongside Jones and Rozier is Anton Gill, who spent the same year at Hargrave as Rozier's teammate. A top 40 ranked recruit, Gill is known for his outside shooting, but his athleticism is not to be ignored. At 6'4", he has notoriously good "hops," placing him in several national dunk competitions over the past summer. While that trio may more than replace Siva, how does Louisville replace Gorgui Dieng? Part of that answer will lie with redshirt Freshman Mangok Mathiang, a former top 60 recruit and true freshman Akoy Agau, who barely cracked some scouting service's top 100. Mathiang brings length, a year of practice with the team, and a striking physical resemblance to Dieng. But, his basketball ability has yet to catch up to what Dieng provided the Cardinals.
While coaching, returning talent, and incoming talent all lead to lofty expectations from the Louisville fanbase and support from the national media, what obstacles stand in the way of Rick Pitino making another trip to the tattoo parlor next Spring? Here are a few that stand out:
- Front Court Depth: Louisville's back court appears to be as deep and talented as any in the nation, but its front court, following the loss of Dieng and transfer of 7-footer Zach Price, hasn't been able to say the same. The recent news of Chane Behanan's indefinite suspension from the team delivers an additional blow. While many are optimistic that the 2012 NCAA West Regional MOP Behanan will ultimately be reinstated, that optimism doesn't rebound, dunk, or defend in the meantime. Role player Stephen Van Treese will need to step up as a Senior leader, but Mathiang and Agau will need to mature and develop more quickly. Montrezl Harrell will log more minutes, which isn't a bad thing, and the 6'5" Blackshear will spend some time at power forward in relief along with time at his natural small forward position. Basically, Behanan's absence places an exclamation alongside the pre-existing question mark about Louisville's front court.
- Elite Team Parity: While last season seemed to lack a wealth of highly talented and dominant teams, the expectations this season are quite different. Along with Louisville, usual suspects Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke, and Kansas are rounding out most analyst's top five. Michigan State is taking the most traditional route of solid coaching and elite, returning talent to earn their preseason accolades, while Kentucky is taking the non-traditional route of banking on their top-ranked, 8-member recruiting class to rebound from last season's disappointment. Meanwhile, Kansas and Duke are more similar to Louisville's balance of mixing significant newcomers with strong, returning talent. Aside from Kentucky, who could have the best collection of talent, the other 4 teams all made deep runs in the tournament, and each of them is arguably more talented this season. Of course, there's another 10, 15, or even 20 teams that have very legitimate dreams of a national title, but the combination of talent and coaching from this elite 5 will make it tough for the rest. As note, the last championship team led by a coach not in, or not likely to be in, the Hall of Fame was Maryland in 2002 (Gary Williams).
- Unfavorable Odds: It's simple. Winning back-to-back championships just isn't easy. As mentioned, it's been done twice in the past 40 years. Even the dominant 1997 Kentucky team fell a few points shy of repeating. First, Louisville needs health, some luck, and some continued hunger and humility to reach the postseason as a top or very high seed. Injuries, bad bounces, and big egos could quickly result in losses that squash the Cardinals' momentum. Secondly, there's always a team or two in the postseason that overachieves and becomes the cinderella story, at least for a couple of rounds. Last season, it was Florida Gulf Coast who knocked off 2-seed Georgetown enroute to the Sweet Sixteen. Finally, getting past those first two postseason obstacles isn't enough. Not only are cinderellas knocking off the elite, but underachieving elite teams frequently rise to the occasion, much like Connecticut in 2011 and Louisville, itself, in 2012. Regardless of what anyone says, luck plays an important role in achieving the ultimate prize.
The lofty expectations from Louisville fans appear warranted. The accolades and predictions for Louisville from the national media appear warranted. But, beware. There's another, long six months of opportunities and obstacles between "can we do it again this year" and "we did it again this year" for Louisville fans.