After Final Four loss, Louisville has enough talent to get back -- and win

So begins a season of expectations in Louisville that matches the ones in Lexington. (US Presswire)

NEW YORK -- Louisville and Kentucky are always going to be attached at the hip, given their historic rivalry and proximity to one another. Since John Calipari took over in Lexington, though, Louisville has taken a backseat to the Wildcats in one key area: talent.

One lottery pick after another has run through Kentucky, and some of those picks helped Calipari lead the Wildcats to a national championship last season. Even during the head-to-head matchup at the Final Four in April, the talent disparity on the court was especially noticeable.

That won’t be the case this year. Last week on the radio, coach Rick Pitino told's Jeff Goodman that this is the first time since Calipari took over at Kentucky that he feels Louisville has comparable talent to the Wildcats.  

As we know, having enough talent to go toe-to-toe with Kentucky is enough to be ranked near the top. In fact, went with the Cardinals as the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

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“This year’s team has a lot of depth and a lot of talent,” said senior guard Peyton Siva, who was named the Big East Preseason Player of the Year. “If we stay hungry and don’t get satisfied, we’ll be in the top spot.”

That’s not to say, of course, that Louisville is becoming a spitting image of Calipari’s Kentucky. The Wildcats are reloading with yet another No. 1 recruiting class, led by the now-cleared Nerlens Noel. Louisville, on the other hand, is going to go to battle with a veteran team built at the top with upperclassmen experience.

Siva is a senior; all-conference big man Gorgui Dieng and super sub Russ Smith are juniors; transfer Luke Hancock is a redshirt junior; and sophomore Chane Behanan is a returning starter at power forward.

“I’d much rather have players like this,” Pitino said at Wednesday’s Big East media day, pointing to Siva and Dieng. “A four-year player and a three-year player. If I could do what [Kentucky] could do, I certainly would want the talent they have. But I can’t do it. It’s not my makeup.”

Don’t feel too bad for Pitino, though.

Despite not having one-and-done stars across the board, Louisville will be one of the deepest and most talented teams in the country. It starts with Siva in the backcourt, one of the more experienced point guards around. Dieng and Behanan anchor the frontcourt, while sophomores Wayne Blackshear and Kevin Ware seemed primed for breakout years. Smith can make an impact in spurts, and most people around the program seem high on freshman forward Montrezl Harrell.

And it looks like Hancock, the George Mason transfer, could be the missing piece -- the difference between a trip to the Final Four and being the last team standing in Atlanta.

“He’s the key to our team,” Pitino said. “He gives us shooting. We had the lowest field-goal percentage in 50 years at the Final Four. He’s something we need desperately. We had a void, and he’s the guy we have to have.”

In addition to Hancock and the returning players, the biggest difference between last year and this year? The experience of getting to the national semifinals -- and falling short.

According to Siva, the defeat in New Orleans was a learning experience.

“I think it’s going to help us,” he said. “It’s big motivation, falling short last year. Everyone knows what it takes to reach that point. We know how it feels to make the Final Four. We want to get one game closer.”

After losing four of their final six to end the season, not many people expected the Cardinals to win the Big East tournament and then win four straight in the NCAA tournament. This year, there are more expectations. Louisville was the unanimous No. 1 pick in the Big East -- and there will be a target on the Cardinals' back throughout the season.

“Being picked first doesn’t mean a lot to me,” Dieng said. “If you’re not prepared and you’re No. 1, you’ll still get beat.”

It all comes back to the players on the roster, though. And this year, Louisville is potent enough to go against anyone in the country -- including its state rivals.

“I feel like we got talent this year like Kentucky,” Dieng said. “I look forward to playing them this year.”  

So does everyone else. See you Dec. 29. And maybe again in early April. 

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