The Louisville Cardinals' defense of their national championship hasn't entirely gone as expected. They are currently 17-3 on the season. The Cardinals have played three Top 25 opponents and came up short against all three.
They lost Kevin Ware after he re-aggravated his leg injury from last season and lost Chane Behanan for a violation of university policies. To make matters worse, the Cardinals have been out-rebounded a number of times this season and don't have much depth underneath.
Despite all of that, the Cardinals will make their third straight Final Four this season.
Rick Pitino has proven to be a master at getting the most out of his players. There is a reason he has taken three different schools to the Final Four, won national championships at two different schools and is in the Hall of Fame. Pitino and his ability to "coach up" his players is the first feather in the cap for the Cardinals.
Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng have moved on to the NBA and Behanan has reportedly moved on to Colorado State (via Jeff Borzello, CBSSports.com). That is three starters from last year's team gone, yet the Cardinals still return seven players from last year's championship team. Senior Russ Smith is on the Wooden Award watch list and has been a nightmare for opponents for several years now.
Senior Luke Hancock has been displaying the same scoring ability he showed in last year's championship game against Michigan. Hancock is averaging 11 points per game and has scored in double figures 11 times this season, including seven consecutive games.
You can watch Hancock bring Louisville back against Michigan in the video below.
Former junior college player of the year Chris Jones has been a nice addition to the Cardinals. The junior point guard is averaging 11 points per game and less than two turnovers per game. Combine that with Montrezl Harrell's near double-double average and Wayne Blackshear's improvement and there is still a ton of talent on this team.
Louisville has seven players returning from last year's championship team. Of those seven players, five have played in two Final Fours. Point being, this team has the kind of tournament experience most coaches can only wish for. Also, Louisville ranks 13th nationally in points per game with an average of 83. This team resembles some of Pitino's older teams that lived and died by the three, and as of late they have been consistently knocking down shots from beyond the arc.
How far will the Cardinals go this season?
The Cardinals have climbed back into the Top 10 of the Coaches Poll and are beginning to position themselves for a decent seed come tournament time. They currently have three games remaining against Top 25 opponents and several nationally televised contests. Louisville will be more prepared to handle the pressure of March Madness than most teams in the country.
I do not believe this year's Louisville basketball squad is as talented as last year's. However, I do believe there is more than enough talent and experience remaining on this team to make a third consecutive Final Four. I also believe Pitino will take his coaching to a whole new level once the NCAA tournament begins.
Pitino's knowledge and intensity combined with the returning talent and experience will carry the 'Ville to their third straight Final Four.
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com