LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Louisville’s four seniors will always be remembered for their roles in helping win last year’s NCAA championship.
Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Stephan Van Treese and Tim Henderson will also go down as the Cardinals’ winningest class with a 115-30 record entering Saturday’s regular-season finale against No. 19 Connecticut (24-6, 12-5 American Athletic Conference), a game that could earn the No. 11 Cardinals (25-5, 14-3) a share of the inaugural AAC crown.
Sweeping the Huskies would add to an impressive list of achievements for Louisville’s upperclassmen, who have already earned consecutive Big East championships and back-to-back Final Four berths. There’s still time for another title from a group that has put together the school’s best run after arriving as relative unknowns recruited by coach Rick Pitino.
"We do whatever it takes to win," Smith said Friday. "Van Treese contributes to this team in ways that would upset a lot of people because they went in the box score with just a point. … There’s no championship without Tim Henderson, and there’s definitely no championship without Luke Hancock. It’s just amazing what this group has been through."
Smith stands out from this foursome for many reasons. He’s one of just four Cardinals with at least 1,700 points – he ranks eighth with 1,776 – 300 assists and 200 steals.
Smith again is averaging 18.0 points but has raised his assists (4.5), field goal percentage (46.8) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7). The guard said he expected as much after bypassing last year’s NBA draft to hone his game after talks with his family and Pitino, who sees a smarter player.
"I don’t think he puts himself in a box as much as he used to. He used to put himself into difficult situations where you shoot a low percentage," Pitino said.
Wednesday night’s 84-71 victory at No. 18 SMU offered another example of how dangerous Smith is when he’s dialed in. Despite a stomach illness that bothered him all night, he scored 22 of his 26 points after halftime, including all six 3-pointers.
"I told Coach that if I’m sick and I look like I’m going to lose the game for you, I have no problem with you taking me out," Smith said. "That second half was probably one of the best I’ve ever played."
Hancock transferred from George Mason three years ago hoping to compete for a championship and ended up delivering it. He became the first non-starter to earn Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors after scoring 22 points with five 3-pointers in the 82-76 title game victory over Michigan.
"I’m a pretty lucky guy," said Hancock, Louisville’s third-leading scorer at 11.8 points per game. "During my redshirt year we go to the Final Four and experienced all that, and then last year we win it all. You couldn’t write it up any better than that."
This group has won five more games than last year’s class (110-38) and topped the 1979-83 squad that won 109 games and reached three Final Fours.
"It’s great that people kind of remember us," Hancock said, "but the story’s not done yet."
Louisville is tied atop the conference with No. 15 Cincinnati, which visits Rutgers on Saturday. The Cardinals and Bearcats split their season series, each winning on the road.
UConn is tied with SMU for third place, but the Mustangs hold the tiebreaker, having beaten the Huskies twice. SMU plays at No. 20 Memphis on Saturday.
The Huskies had their own send-off Wednesday night, as Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey made their senior night one to remember.
Napier scored 26 points and Giffey added a career-high 16 to lead UConn to a 69-63 win over Rutgers. Napier made a career-high seven 3-pointers and Giffey was 4 of 7 from behind the arc.
The Huskies won despite scoring three points in the final four minutes after failing to get a field goal in the final 7 1/2 minutes in a 51-45 victory over then-No. 11 Cincinnati last Saturday.
"Offensively, we’ve got to figure it out when it comes down the stretch," Napier said. "But I cannot stress enough that defense is going to help us win games."
Napier needs two points to catch Kemba Walker and move into seventh place on the school’s all-time scoring list. His four assists Wednesday put him nine behind coach Kevin Ollie for third place.
Louisville won 76-64 in Connecticut on Jan. 18 for its seventh victory in the past eight meetings. Smith led the way with 23 points while Napier scored 30.