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April 15, 2013

UofL looks ready for another Final Four run




As he does at the end of every season, Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino will travel to his home in Miami to contemplate his future and evaluate the past season.

This time, he has plenty to reflect on, including considering the possibility of a third straight NCAA Final Four and perhaps back-to-back championships.

It took Pitino less than 48 hours after cutting down the nets in Atlanta's Georgia Dome to mention the intriguing prospect of another Final Four run.

"Wouldn't it be great if we somehow got to Dallas next year?," Pitino asked the crowd at the KFC Yum! Center celebration last Wednesday in reference to the site of next year's Final Four.

That's not by any means a longshot. A number of publications and websites have already released their projected 2013-14 preseason top 25 and UofL is listed in the top five in all of them. Lindy's has UofL No. 1, while Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and USA Today (Coaches) all have the Cards second behind Indiana.

Although the Cardinals' roster is still in a state of flux, pending the going or staying of Russ Smith and Chane Behanan (Gorgui Dieng is going, going ...) and Kevin Ware's recovery from his broken leg, there will certainly be enough talent for another deep NCAA run.

And if junior guard Russ Smith, the team's leading scorer and the top scorer in the NCAA Tournament with an average of 22.3 ppg, returns, UofL's chances for a repeat Final Four would take a significant leap. Smith's father has said he will enter the NBA draft and sign with an agent, but Pitino said Russ is wavering and it's 50-50 whether or not he'll be back.

Even without Smith and Dieng, UofL will have a deep, talented roster with a mix of experienced players and highly regarded newcomers.

Rising sophomore Montrezl Harrell is the most likely replacement for Dieng, with Stephan Van Treese serving as his backup. Behanan should return at power forward, with junior-college transfer Chris Jones at point guard, Wayne Blackshear at small forward and 6-6 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock serving as a hybrid shooting guard/small forward.

Besides Van Treese, Pitino would have a bench that includes outstanding freshmen guards Terry Rozier and Anton Gill, along with Tim Henderson and center Mangok Mathiang, who sat out last season.

"I think we'll be just as strong next year," Van Treese says. "The guys we have coming in are good guards. As long as we have good chemistry.... This is so much fun, who doesn't want to win another one of these?"

Smith was slightly more cautious when asked if he thought the Cardinals could repeat next season.

"I don't know, it's very hard to do," he said. "Butler went to back-to-back championship games, and that's incredible. To do that is very, very hard, and you can't call it. That's going to be tough, and I'm not going to be the one to call it.

"Yeah, we should be pretty good, just having people back off a championship team should give us some leverage. But it's never an easy thing to repeat. That's probably the hardest thing to do on this level.

"People leave, people stay, people get better, some don't. That's the way it is, and the game of basketball will always be like that. So it's not about people staying or leaving, it's about what the players you put on the court do, and that's all that matters."

Next season will be one of transition for Louisville, which will no longer be playing in the Big East. Before moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference for 2014-15, the Cardinals will compete in the lightweight American Athletic Conference, which will look very much like the old Conference USA and likely won't be nearly as tough as the current Big East.


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