Louisville, Pitino celebrate unlikely Final Four

Louisville coach Rick Pitino says he’ll celebrate this season.

He expects his unlikely Final Four squad to do the same.

The Cardinals didn’t get to cut down the nets in New Orleans,

but the run was surely satisfying to Pitino, who compared his group

to one of his favorites, his first Final Four team in Providence in

1987.

”They made me really, really proud,” Pitino said.

It might have been one of his finest coaching jobs of his career

that includes a national championship at Kentucky in 1996.

Louisville overcame three season-ending knee injuries, a rash of

concussions and eight players who missed at least one game in an

up-and-down year.

The Cardinals (30-10) surged at the end – winning four times in

four days to capture the Big East tournament title and then winning

four more to get to the Big Easy before falling 69-61 to Kentucky

on Saturday night.

”Anytime you don’t win a national championship and you’re

playing for one, it’s disappointing. When you go home with a bronze

medal around your neck, it’s not disappointing,” Pitino said. ”I

told the guys … `I’m celebrating a season where we worked around

the clock, around injuries and everything else.

”If you guys don’t celebrate and have good, clean fun, you’re

fools.’ Because I think there’s only been eight (other Louisville)

teams that got to the Final Four in the history of the one of the

greatest traditions and they did it.”

Even with the loss to Kentucky on the biggest stage ever for the

in-state rivalry game, the success should quiet fans who had begun

growing restless following two consecutive opening game losses in

the NCAA tournament the previous two years.

”Another banner goes up in the Louisville gym,” Pitino said.

”And we’ll always be remembered by that.”

This season, Louisville won two games in Portland against

Davidson and New Mexico and stayed out west, opting to fly to

Phoenix for the West Regional instead of coming back to campus.

There, the Cardinals dominated No. 1 seed Michigan State and

rallied from an 11-point, second-half deficit against Florida to

reach the Final Four for the first time since 2005.

To get back, Louisville must replace two starting seniors –

forward Kyle Kuric and guard Chris Smith as well as forward Jared

Swopshire, who is expected to graduate in May and transfer because

there’s not an open scholarship available.

”This team always played hard. The last eight, 10 games it

really came together,” Kuric said. ”It had a special bond I’ve

never been a part of before. Proud to be on the team and proud of

the guys, the way everybody stepped up.”

But the Cardinals must solve their shooting woes.

Louisville was 13th in the 16-team Big East – and 223rd in the

nation – in field goal percentage at 42.2 percent.

Instead, the Cardinals had to rely on a gambling, aggressive

defense that forced opponents to shoot 38.4 percent and finished

second in the nation with 353 steals.

”We’ve never been a great shooting team,” Pitino said. ”So to

get to a Final Four, I’ve always felt, in 2005, we got it with

Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia and Larry O’Bannon. All three guys

could knock down the shots.

”This was not a team of great shooters. They had to win with

confusing opponents and old-fashion hustle and doing it.”

Louisville’s point guard and center should be set with Peyton

Siva and Gorgui Dieng. Freshman Chane Behanan exceeded expectations

all season in the power forward role and finished against the

Wildcats with 10 points and nine rebounds, just over his season

average in each.

Fellow freshman Wayne Blackshear provided a glimpse, too, of

what he could become. The highly heralded recruit out of Chicago

needed shoulder surgeries on each arm and fell behind in

conditioning. He finished with nine points in 14 minutes against

Kentucky.

Mercurial sixth man Russ Smith and his ”Russdiculous” play

will be back, perhaps slightly more toned down and George Mason

transfer guard Luke Hancock will be eligible, giving Pitino an

added shooter and hope for another long NCAA run.

”We’re only going to get better,” Pitino said.