Rick Pitino will have his Cardinals ready in 2012
This years' edition of the Louisville Cardinals was a team that contained no lottery picks, no player of the year candidates and only one former 5-star recruit in freshman Chane Behanan. Still, this group made it further than any Louisville squad has since Terrence Williams was a freshman in 2005.
They made a highly unexpected run to the Big East crown and followed with an even more improbable run in the Big Dance. Finally, they gave this years' champion Kentucky the most they could handle in the tournament.
Rick Pitino has had more fun with this team than perhaps anyone has ever seen him have, and with only two seniors graduating, next year's campaign could prove to be even more fruitful than what was this past March.
Here's five reasons why.
Russ Smith has Pitino smiling again.
Russ Smith has seemingly been an agent of change on this Louisville roster. He reportedly asked Pitino for a hug after being chewed out on the practice floor, and the fact that he lived another day is proof enough.
Rick Pitino is having fun with this bunch of Cardinals. The team is laughing along with him and playing like it too. Countless halftime interviews this season had Pitino simply saying that Louisville needed to "loosen up" and "not play so tight."
Many would say that Smith's style of play is the definition of loose, and Chane Behanan's locker room pressers are a sight to behold as well. Louisville plays loose and Pitino is loving every minute of it, or at least most of it.
Blackshear looked remarkably confident in NOLA.
Wayne Blackshear's impact on Louisville's Final Four matchup with Kentucky cannot be understated.
The Chicago native looked like he belonged out on the big stage. Despite foul trouble, he was able to provide a much needed spark off the bench and gave Cardinal fans a glimpse of the big-time recruit that was promised when he stepped on campus this past fall.
A myriad of injuries and health-related issues kept Blackshear off the floor for much of this past season, and if those issues are kept at bay in the upcoming season, Blackshear will be a force in the Louisville backcourt.
His ability to attack the basket explosively as well as an above average outside game will work nicely with the fast-paced nature of Pitino's offense.
Siva's explosiveness opens up the floor for the Cards.
Perhaps the biggest storyline of Louisville's unexpected run in March was the emergence of Peyton Siva. His remarkable personal story aside, Siva showed that he is much more than just raw speed and quickness.
Still, don't think for a second that that raw speed and quickness has taken a back seat. Siva's uncanny ability to penetrate a defense is still at the root of his rise to the top of the crop of NCAA point guards.
What is scary is that he has developed other parts of his game, making better decisions with the ball and hitting mid-range floaters from all over the floor.
He has one more year. Next season looks to be the culmination of incredible raw talent combining with world-class tutoring from Rick Pitino. Look for Peyton Siva to be not only the leader of the Cards, but a candidate for some postseason hardware in 2013.
Pitino raves about George Mason transfer Luke Hancock.
Wayne Blackshear was not the only Louisville player bitten by the injury bug last season. Rick Pitino should have role players Mike Marra and Stephen Van Treese back in the mix after both had long-lasting injuries in 2012.
Marra is a sharp shooter that will certainly be a target for both of Louisville's penetrating guards in Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, and Van Treese is a solid big man down low to spell Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng.
Maybe the most unknown but intriguing player on next season's team will be Luke Hancock, a 6'6" swingman who is a talented shooter and passer. Rick Pitino is thrilled to have added Hancock, who had to sit out last season due to the transfer.
Louisville will also be adding freshman guard Terry Rozier next season who should be a great depth player immediately and the heir apparent to Peyton Siva in the future.
The stage doesn't get much bigger than the Superdome.
The major contributors on this years Louisville team have certainly played in their fair share of high-pressure environments. From the Big East Championship in 2011 to regular season contests at Rupp Arena and the Carrier Dome, some would say they've "been there, done that."
While all of those games were indeed pressure-packed, nothing can compare to playing your bitter in-state rival in front of 70,000 people in one of the biggest events in American sport. This run to the Final Four will prove invaluable to those who return for next season.
More importantly, Chane Behanan, Russ Smith and Wayne Blackshear all got this experience as underclassmen. It is rare to have almost a full team return from a Final Four run in college basketball today, and that is precisely what Louisville will have going into the 2012-13 season.
The best is yet to come.