LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Things just keep getting better for the Louisville Cardinals. First came a surprise trip to the Final Four, then a contract extension that will keep coach Rick Pitino around for nine more years.
Can a national championship be next?
The players seem to think so.
"The expectations are a lot coming in, but we have the personnel to get the job done," guard Russ Smith said.
The second-ranked Cardinals are an experienced team with excellent depth. They are long and quick, with shooters surrounding imposing post players.
Pitino, who signed a five-year contract extension that will keep him in Louisville through the 2021-22 season, has 11 returning players. Last year's team went 30-10, won the Big East Conference tournament and reached the Final Four for the first time since 2005 before losing to eventual champion Kentucky in the semifinals.
Part of their championship pedigree is an unselfish attitude.
Anchoring this year's squad are Smith and backcourt mate Peyton Siva, center Gorgui Dieng and forward Chane Behanan, who each averaged at least 9 points per game last season.
"We know how important February is and how important March is," Smith said. "It doesn't matter what our record is going into February. As long as we can take care of those two months, things will be OK.
"We've just got to ... take care of business when February and March comes."
The Cardinals' bench could determine how far they go.
Sophomores Wayne Blackshear (slowed by a shoulder injury), Angel Nunez, Kevin Ware and Zach Price are all ready for bigger roles. The same can be said for junior guards Michael Baffour and Tim Henderson and senior forward Stephan Van Treese, back from a knee injury that limited him to three games last season.
Louisville is also expecting big things from a couple of newcomers: Montrezl Harrell and Luke Hancock.
Harrell, a 6-foot-8 freshman forward, helped USA Basketball's Under-18 National Team win the gold medal this summer at the FIBA Americas U18 Championships in Brazil. He has been an imposing post presence in practice.
Hancock, a 6-6 forward with two years of eligibility remaining after transferring from George Mason, averaged 9.4 points and shot 35 percent from 3-point range with the Patriots.
Hancock figures to boost Louisville's perimeter game — the Cardinals shot 32 percent from beyond the arc last season — but coach Rick Pitino said don't look for the Cardinals to start launching 3-pointers.
"I don't think we'll be a great 3-point shooting team, and we don't have to be," Pitino said. "We won't be a poor 3-point shooting team. Our strength is going to be our speed, our quickness, our unselfishness."
Especially in Smith and Siva.
Smith is the Cardinals' top returning scorer at 11.5 points per game and also creates havoc on defense — he set Louisville's single-season record with 87 steals as a sophomore. Though Smith's unpredictability earned him the nickname 'Russdiculous' from Pitino, the coach said the junior has improved.
"He's really getting good right now," Pitino said. "The last week of practice I've really been taken aback by how it's finally registered with him. I'm hoping when the lights come on that it's not just practice (when he does this), because that's when he gets a little revved up."
The Cardinals have a proven floor leader In senior point guard Siva, the Big East tournament's most outstanding player. He is also the heart and soul of the team. After averaging 9.1 points and 5.6 assists per game as a junior, Siva is working on contributing more offensively.
"Peyton's really developed into a great, great point guard," Pitino said. "He's always pivoting in the lane rather than just leaving his feet and throwing it away. He's dribbling back out and looking for another hole. Everything we put into it for four years has come to the forefront. If there's a better point guard in America than him, I'd like to see him."
While the backcourt is in good hands, Louisville's inside game is also solid.
Dieng set a Louisville single-season blocks record with 128 and averaged an impressive 9.1 rebounds as a sophomore last season. The 6-11 Senegal native seems motivated to improve those numbers.
"I'm ready to block out, do whatever I need to do defensively," Dieng said. "I have the strength to do a lot of things on the court."
Behanan might be the Cardinals' most intriguing player.
He started 37 games as a freshman, averaging 9.5 points and 7.5 rebounds and was named to the Big East's all-rookie team. But he has had off-court problems and has been suspended from playing in any exhibition games.
Behanan's troubles have created opportunities for the freshman Harrell.
"If Chane didn't have these little suspensions, would he beat (Harrell) out? I don't know," Pitino said. "But right now Harrell's got a leg up because he's (Behanan) not playing."
Not yet, but he will. And when he gets on the floor, he will be another inside threat for the Cardinals.
"He's quicker. He's stronger. He has improved his shot," Pitino said of Behanan. "He's getting there, but he's got to stop turning the ball over and work on his ball handling and passing. He's going to catch up and he's going to be good."
With so many options, the Cardinals like their chances to win their first title since 1986.
"It's going to be tough to guard us because we have so many different combinations and so many weapons on this team," Siva said. "... That's what makes this team so good. We've got a lot of depth and are just trying to keep everybody on the same page — no egos, just going out there and playing for the 'W.'"