Louisville's Rick Pitino is among 11 coaches who have taken teams from two different schools to the Final Four. No coach has made the trip with three different schools. Until now?
Pitino won't address that historic possibility. He won't speak about the fact he took Kentucky to the 1993 Final Four in his fourth season with the Wildcats, and he's entering his fourth season with Louisville. Who has time for such idle chit-chat? He's all about results.
But the Final Four might be more of a probability than a possibility. Louisville is loaded. Still, Pitino, who also took Providence to the Final Four in '87, preaches perspective. "Our success will be based on how healthy we are," Pitino said. "We have quality, but not necessarily quantity. Our demise late last year [a 4-9 run to the wire] was due to our injuries."
FRONTCOURTLast season, Louisville's major weakness was not difficult to pinpoint. The Cardinals were undersized in the pivot. They were outrebounded in seven of their last nine Conference USA games (including the league tournament). And they were generally pushed around.
That figures to change. For one thing, the Cardinals welcome the return of senior power forward Ellis Myles, who missed all of last season while recovering from knee surgery. "Ellis gives us something we did not have last year -- a low-post presence," Pitino said. "He's one of the more physical players in the country."
Now he has help in the form of two highly touted freshmen -- Juan Diego Palacios and Brian Johnson. Palacios, a third-team All-America selection by USA Today who signed in the spring, was a major addition. He could start immediately. Johnson was a rugged rebounder for the 38-0 Oak Hill Academy.
Senior forward Otis George, a workaholic best known for last season's 13-point, eight-rebound performance against Kentucky, returns in a reserve role.
BACKCOURTThe Cardinals have a gem in junior swingman Francisco Garcia, who finished in the C-USA top four in scoring (16.4), assists (4.7) and steals (1.9). Two ankle injuries slowed his progress at times, but he remained the team's most compelling factor, whether it was shooting from long range, driving to the basket or setting up his teammates.
"Francisco is one of the top three or four players in the country," Pitino said. "He has improved as much as any player I've ever coached from the time he entered to where he is today. Right now, he's unguardable. No one has been able to stop him from either scoring or creating scoring opportunities with his outstanding passing ability."
Louisville enters the season with junior Taquan Dean at point guard, but that could change. Dean, a shooting guard as a freshman, made a nice transition to the point last season, even while maintaining his scoring touch and standout defense. Dean played through a severe groin injury last season, then underwent surgery for a sports hernia in June. He should be completely healthy for the start of practice.
"Taquan was the catalyst to our defense last year," Pitino said. "Once he got injured, we weren't the same basketball team."
If sophomore Brandon Jenkins shows promise at the point, Dean could shift back to shooting guard. If not, expect senior Larry O'Bannon, who had 15 double-figure scoring games, to retain his starting position in the backcourt. Either way, the Cardinals have suitable options.
Freshman Lorrenzo Wade, a constant threat from behind the 3-point arc, is another candidate for significant playing time.
FINAL ANALYSISWhen Pitino was hired at Louisville, fans from his former school, Kentucky, fretted about the day when the Cardinals might overtake the Wildcats and capture a national championship. That day could be here.
The Cardinals are far from a finished product, but if Myles is all the way back from his knee injury, they will be an especially tough out in the NCAA tournament.
Garcia and Dean are proven commodities in C-USA. If the freshmen are as good as advertised, the lineup will be filled with scorers, rebounders and athletic defenders who play the style that Pitino dreams about.