BY MIKE RILEY
At the beginning of last season’s “March Madness,” the theme was “Rise To The Occasion.”
Now it’s “Rise And Repeat.”
Back-to-back Final Fours and the 2013 national championship — Yes, it’s been a great run by the Louisville Cardinals.
And for that run to continue this season, which according to coach Rick Pitino would classify the Cardinals as a “Mini Dynasty” is a strong possibility but by no means automatic for a team that finished last season with 16 straight wins in earning their third NCAA championship.
Pitino, entering his 13th season at Louisville (664-239 overall, 310-111 at U of L) who also last season was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall Of Fame, will direct a Cardinals squad that returns three starters from the team that finished 35-5, capping the season with an 82-76 win over Michigan in the title game played in Atlanta.
Pitino is now the first coach to take three different schools to the Final Four (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) and the first to win a title at two different schools as he also won the 1996 national title while at Kentucky.
“The offseason really went by quick and we’re anxious to see how good we are,” Pitino said before the Cardinals’ exhibition game against Kentucky Wesleyan on Oct. 29 at the KFC Yum! Center.
“The key is staying humble and staying hungry,” he told Andy Katz of ESPN in an interview in early October. “If you lose your humility, you have no shot at making it. I had a very good team in 2008 — had good guys on it — but they weren’t quite humble enough.
“If you lose any humility at all, you’re not getting there because humility keeps that hungriness that you have that strong desire to win and get back there. The moment you think you’ve arrived — the moment you think you’re good — you get knocked out of the NCAA tournament.”
One of the biggest adjustments for the Cardinals this season will be their one and only season in the American Athletic Conference. Louisville is the preseason favorite to win the conference, which includes Big East Conference leftovers Cincinnati, Connecticut, Rutgers and South Florida along with Houston, Memphis, Southern Methodist, Temple and Central Florida.
On the Cardinals’ nonconference slate, which starts Saturday when they host College of Charleston, they will have a possible early-season matchup with North Carolina at the Hall of Fame Tip-off in Uncasville, Conn., as well as their annual battle with Kentucky.
Pitino must replace two key players in point guard Peyton Siva (10 points per game, 5.7 assists per game last season) and center Gorgui Dieng (9.8 ppg, 9.4 rebounds per game, 83 blocks). Both were NBA draft picks — Siva to the Detroit Pistons and Dieng to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“Well, it starts for real on Saturday,” Pitino said following the Cardinals’ 90-61 exhibition victory over Pikeville on Wednesday at the Yum! Center. “And we have to make great improvement on the backboard, especially because we are getting outrebounded by teams that shoot a low percentage and we are not coming down with the rebound. So that will be the first point of emphasis [in Thursday’s practice].
“I have said this before in the pregame show, we are way behind right now. We have had many, many distractions and we have been without four major players from last year’s team in Peyton, Gorgui (Dieng), Luke [Hancock] and Chane [Behanan]. Those distractions, not Peyton or Gorgui, have led to us making slow progress right now. We have to pick it up a little bit over the next two days and play much better defense on the backboards.”
Just a bit on each returning player:
• Russ Smith, 6-0, Sr., G: All-Big East first team and the Cardinals’ leading scorer last season at 18.7 ppg. Named as a preseason All-American after being named to the third team last season. Averaged 22.7 points in the NCAA tournament with a high of 31 against Oregon. Among the nation’s leaders in steals. Spent the past summer playing with an All-Star team in Europe. Started 37 games last season.
“I’m ready for the season to start,” Smith said. “Being named an All-American is quite an honor. In high school, I would see guys get that and wonder what it would be like. But I’m not about ‘tags’. I would just like to play for another national championship. I’ve been here going on four years — the Big East titles, two Final Fours and a national championship. It’s been a great time.”
• Hancock, 6-6, Sr., F: Named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Scored 22 points and hit all five of his 3-point attempts against Michigan in the title game. Had 20 points against Wichita State in the national semifinals. Currently suffering from a strained left Achilles tendon and should be returning to practice shortly.
• Stephan Van Treese, 6-9, Sr., F: A top reserve front-line player who has been limited somewhat by injuries. Will be heavily depended on for rebounding this season. Last season, averaged 11.2 rebounds per 40 minutes played. Referred to as “Big Hustle.”
• Tim Henderson, 6-2, Sr., G: Coach Pitino refers to him as the top walk-on in the country. Hit back-to-back 3-pointers against Wichita State, allowing the Cardinals to overcome a 12-point second-half deficit and advance to the championship game. Was specifically mentioned by President Obama during the Cardinals’ White House visit.
• Kevin Ware, 6-2, Jr., G: After what happened during last season’s NCAA tournament, there are only a handful of people who do not know about Ware and the horrible injury (broken leg) suffered against Duke during the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
But in the Cardinals’ win over Pikeville, Ware made an appearance late in the game and finished with six points and four rebounds in 10 minutes of court action. Ware hit the first shot he took — a 3-pointer
“I just wanted to get him some minutes just so he could get over the jitters in case we need him against Charleston,” Pitino said.
“I was a little nervous really,” Ware said. “But when he called my number, I was ready to go in. It’s been 220 days now. After that first shot went in, everything was back to normal. I’m happy.”
• Behanan, 6-6, Jr., F: All-NCAA tournament selection who will start the season on indefinite suspension. Had a double-double against Michigan in the national championship game with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Had what was voted the “Dunk Of The Year” against DePaul. Started 37 games last season.
• Wayne Blackshear, 6-5, Jr., F: Started 34 games last season and was awarded the prestigious 2013 NCAA Elite 89 Award presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average (3.55 in communication). Had a season-high 19 points against Rutgers despite playing just 14 minutes.
• Montrezl Harrell, 6-8, So., F: Came into his own during the NCAA tournament and will more than likely break into the starting lineup this season. Scored a season-high 20 points against Syracuse in the Big East championship game. Also earned a gold medal over the summer with the USA Basketball U-19 team in the Czech Republic.
• Mangkok Mathiang, 6-10, RS Fr., C: Will be looked upon heavily to step in for the departed Dieng after red-shirting last season. How he can improve his rebounding skills will determine a lot of the Cardinals success this season.
Among the newcomers to the Cardinals roster this season will be:
• Chris Jones: A 5-foot-10 junior guard who was last season’s junior college Player of the Year at Northwest Florida State College where he averaged 21.8 points per game.
• Terry Rozier: A 6-1 freshman guard who had signed with Louisville before last season, but attended Hargrave Military Academy. Rozier has impressed fans during the early-season scrimmages and exhibitions with his shooting and rebounding ability. Last season, he scored a school-record 69 points in one game and had another 50-point game.
• Anton Gill: A 6-4 freshman guard who was a teammate of Rozier last season at Hargrave. Had what was then a school-record 56-point game plus another 50-point game.
• Akoy Agau: a 6-8 freshman forward from Omaha, Neb., where he won four straight Class A championships. Could be looked upon early in the season with the absence of Behanan.
Rounding out the roster are two walk-ons — guards Dillion Avare from Lexington, Ky., and David Levitch from Goshen, Ky.
“We don’t just keep our championship trophy with us,” Pitino said. “It’s your trophy. It’s everybody who supports our basketball team. There have been three in the history of the University of Louisville, and I’ve never seen a fan base so happy a championship since I’ve been a coach. And the reason being is, it’s yours.”