|Among the impact players returning for Pitino is power forward Chane Behanan. (Getty Images)|
No disrespect to John Calipari or Tom Crean, but that's why the Louisville Cardinals enter the 2012-13 college basketball season as numero uno.
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Flash back to New Orleans last March 31, when Pitino's bunch had a chance to make it a one-possession affair with a tad more than five minutes remaining in the national semifinals, against a Kentucky crew that has a chance to send a record six players to the first round of the NBA Draft.
Sometimes overlooked amid the flammable quotes and Don Corleone-esque white suit is the obvious: Pitino is one of the elite coaches in college basketball history. Sure, he's not Calipari in terms of recruiting but this season, Pitino won't be completely overmatched when pitting his roster against the one down the road.
A year ago, his team was ravaged by injuries, yet somehow made its way to New Orleans for a Final Four appearance.
Pitino lost Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith and Jared Swopshire off that team, but all are replaceable.
This year's team has talent, experience and depth.
|Last season: 30-10 (lost to UK in Final Four)|
|Lost: Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith, Jared Swopshire|
|Return: Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear, Mike Marra, Zach Price|
|Notable newcomers: Luke Hancock (George Mason), Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier|
Kentucky cannot boast all three of those attributes. And while Indiana can, Crean is not Pitino.
Pitino will be 60 years old when the season begins. He'll also have more than 600 career D-I victories under his belt, a half-dozen Final Four appearances and one national title.
He'll have a point guard in Peyton Siva that has three years of experience -- including the last two as a starter. He'll have a pair of talented wings that no one truly saw last season: Wayne Blackshear was a heralded freshman who was coming off two shoulder injuries and didn't make his college debut until mid-February; and Luke Hancock will vie for a starting spot after sitting out a year ago following a transfer from George Mason.
Pitino has a big-time duo up front. The ever-improving Gorgui Dieng, who nearly averaged a double-double as a sophomore and is one of the most intimidating shot-blockers in the nation, to go along with undersized but strong power forward Chane Behanan, who grabbed 7.5 boards per game as a frosh a year ago.
The starting lineup isn't the only place where Louisville holds the advantage over both Kentucky and Indiana.
The Cardinals' second unit could give plenty of teams a run.
Russ Smith can come off the bench and give Louisville instant firepower. Long and talented guard Kevin Ware -- who was never able to be a consistent producer after missing the first semester of 2011-12 due to academics -- is ready for a full contribution. Zach Price is a more than capable backup to Dieng and the team's top perimeter shooter, while Mike Marra returns after missing nearly all of last season with a torn ACL. Then there's late addition Montrezl Harrell, the one-time Virginia Tech signee whose high motor and ability to rebound and run the court earned him a spot on the U-18 team that went to Brazil.
A year ago, Pitino was overmatched when going up against the big boys. In fact, there wasn't a single spot on the floor where he had an edge against the Wildcats.
Anthony Davis vs. Dieng? That's a no-brainer.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist against Behanan? Again, no contest.
Terrence Jones vs. Kyle Kuric? Seriously?
Doron Lamb and Chris Smith? C'mon.
Siva vs. Marquis Teague was the lone comparison that was even close -- and last I checked, Teague is headed to the NBA.
Now Pitino has enough bullets in his gun.
In fact, he may even have more than both Calipari and Crean this season.