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November 14, 2013

MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Cardinals looking to pull off repeat this season

Pitino classifies Louisville’s recent run as ‘Mini Dynasty’

LOUISVILLE — 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.”

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