LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville coach Rick Pitino believes the defending national champions have a chance at being a "mini-dynasty."
After back-to-back Big East championships, Pitino believes the Cardinals can carry that momentum over to their lone season in the upstart American Athletic Conference. Louisville heads to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014.
Winning the reorganized league could also propel Louisville toward a third straight Final Four and maybe consecutive NCAA titles. The Cardinals certainly have a chance to accomplish both goals with a returning nucleus led by leading scorer Russ Smith and a veteran frontcourt featuring Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell.
They've also added some promising newcomers in their quest for a fourth national title.
"It's not probable, but it is possible to do both," Pitino said of winning the conference and the national title. "You want to make your goals lofty anytime you go into a season. We don't expect it. We're going to work very hard to achieve it."
The last school to win three consecutive league championships and reach three Final Fours was UCLA from 2006-08, according to STATS LLC.
Louisville's chances seem realistic.
The Cardinals lost floor leader Peyton Siva from the 35-5 squad to the NBA but retains Smith and his team-best 18.7 points-per-game scoring average. The Cardinals also brought in junior college transfer Chris Jones along with a strong freshmen group led by Terry Rozier and Anton Gill.
Senior reserve Tim Henderson, whose timely 3-pointers helped the Cardinals rally past Wichita State in the national semifinal, is also back and figures to play substantial minutes while junior Kevin Ware regains form after a horrific right leg injury sustained in the Midwest regional final.
Having passed on the NBA draft to work on his game, Smith is eager to see how the changes mesh with a group that is already showing impressive shooting skills.
"They're hungry, they want to get after it and want to win," Smith said of the new faces. "It's different because we've been to a Final Four, we've won multiple Big East championships and have a national championship.
"These new guys want to get a taste of that."
Blackshear meanwhile is finally over shoulder issues that bothered him the past two years and ready to step up his game at small forward. Pitino has even contemplated using him to back up Harrell, who will start at power forward because of Chane Behanan's indefinite suspension.
An ankle injury slowed Final Four MVP Luke Hancock in preseason but the senior swingman is expected to recover and provide perimeter shooting and defense. Six-foot-10 redshirt freshman center Mangok Mathiang is preparing to fill the big void in the pivot left by Gorgui Dieng's move to the pros, with 6-9 senior Stephan Van Treese ready to come off the bench.
Here are five things to watch as Louisville tries to repeat as NCAA champions:
FILLING IN FOR BEHANAN: During Behanan's suspension, Harrell must provide the muscle and scoring. He might have started anyway given his play during the Cardinals' title run and an impressive summer helping lead the U.S. men's under-19 team win the gold medal at the world championships. The 6-8, 235-pounder has returned stronger and more vocal along with adding a jumper. Pitino can't wait to turn him loose.
NICE TO MEET YOU: Jones, the former Tennessee signee, and Rozier highlight a group of newcomers who could make the backcourt one of Louisville's deepest positions. The duo figures to share the point guard role along with Smith, with freshmen guards Dillon Avare, Anton Gill and David Levitch ready to contribute. Forward Akoy Agau joins Mathiang in the frontcourt.
TEAM DEFENSE: Last season saw Smith and Siva put on a clinic in full-court pressure that often got Louisville's transition game going. Time will tell whether the Cardinals can duplicate Pitino's trademark stifling defense. Replacing Dieng's shot-blocking presence in the post could be tough, though Harrell offers a nice fallback with a 7-4 wingspan.
CLOSING THE DEAL: That five-overtime loss at Notre Dame was Louisville's last and serves to remind this year's team to put away opponents when the opportunity's there. The Cardinals' high-intensity response after Ware's devastating injury in the Midwest regional final is another example of how they learned to finish games and they're determined to carry that philosophy deep into postseason.
THE SCHEDULE: Unlike last season when Louisville's early season docket featured NCAA tournament teams Duke and Missouri along with the usual Big East Conference heavyweights, things will be much different for the Cardinals and their newcomers in the upstart AAC. Louisville's toughest nonconference games figure to be North Carolina at the Hall of Fame Classic and its annual showdown against in-state rival Kentucky in Lexington. Memphis and UConn might be the Cardinals' hardest league games before they depart next season for the ACC.