No. 11 Louisville says goodbye to winningest class

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 of a group that initially included Elisha ”Bullet” Justice and center Gorgui Dieng, who left after last season and now plays for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves.

”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 – even Gorgui with the doubters.”

Smith stands out from this foursome for many reasons, among them being nicknamed ”Russdiculous” by Pitino earlier in his career because of the extreme swings in his play. He’s one of just four Cardinals with at least 1,700 points – he ranks eighth with 1,776 – 300 assists and 200 steals and could move up further in all of those categories.

Though Pitino has scolded Smith on occasion this season, the two enjoy a close relationship. And those frustrating moments have been scarce because of the 6-footer’s improvement in several areas.

Smith again is averaging 18.0 points but has raised his assists (4.5), field goal percentage (46.8 percent) and assist/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 Cardinals’ 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 experience all that, and then last year we win it all. You couldn’t write it up any better than that.”

It’s certainly hard to imagine whether Louisville could have overcome a 12-point second-half deficit to Wichita State in last year’s national semifinal without Henderson, a walk-on guard who rallied the Cardinals with back-to-back 3s within 42 seconds.

”I’m known by that now,” Henderson joked. ”It’s changed my name from Tim to Wichita.”

Van Treese had packed up and was ready to transfer after missing most of the 2011-12 season before deciding to stay after talking with Pitino. The 6-9 forward went on to back up Dieng last season and is expected to make his 15th start Saturday against UConn.

”It was the best decision of my life not to leave,” Van Treese said.

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 over four years.

”It’s great that people kind of remember us,” Hancock said, ”but the story’s not done yet.”