Each of the last two years, Rick Pitino unexpectedly lost his top underclassman. Two years ago, Samardo Samuels bolted after his sophomore season and went undrafted. Last year, Terrence Jennings followed suit, though he wasn't selected in the NBA Draft either.
None of Louisville's promising underclassmen are projected as first or second round picks in June's NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com. If Pitino can avoid unexpected losses this off-season, Louisville might be the favorite to cut the nets down next season in Atlanta.
The reasons for Vitale's expectations are obvious - junior point guard Peyton Siva, one of the top assist men nationally, sophomore center Gorgui Dieng, who broke Pervis Ellison's single-season shot blocking record, and power forward Chane Behanan, the MOP on the West Region, are expected to return next season.
Add a healthy Wayne Blackshear, perhaps the team's most dynamic offensive talent, an improved Russ Smith and heady George Mason transfer Luke Hancock to the mix and Louisville should be prepared to content for the national championship again next season.
"[We] had to win with confusing opponents and old fashion hustle," Pitino admitted. "But we're only going to get better. You saw a glimpse of Wayne Blackshear who is coming off of shoulder surgery."
Pitino also expects juniors Mike Marra and Stephan Van Treese to return from season-ending knee injuries. Marra, 6'5, should help improve Louisville's offense with his outside shooting and passing, while Van Treese will add valuable front court depth.
A trio of talented freshmen - 6'8 forward Angel Nunez, 6'4 guard Kevin Ware and 6'10 center Zach Price - also return. Nunez, Ware and Price played sparingly this season, but each showed flashes of promise. Nunez possesses deep range on his jumper, Ware has solid athleticism and length, and Price has the size to rebound and block shots.
"We've got good people coming back," Blackshear said. "Everybody will be more experienced, Angel and Kevin will be playing more and everybody will be more prepared."
If those weren't enough reasons for excitement, Terry Rozier, a four-star guard from Cleveland, will join the fold next season. Rozier, who averaged 25 points per game, should help improve Louisville's three-point shooting, while adding another quick guard on the Cardinals full court press.
"We just have to continue to work hard, stay within our game and listen to coach," Siva said. "We're going to miss our seniors but we have a good corps group coming back and I look forward to it."
Louisville's Key ReturneesPeyton Siva Louisville's floor general played his best basketball during the Cardinals surprising post-season run after learning, as Pitino said, "how to change pace." A dangerous weapon in the open court or using the pick and roll, Siva is one of the top assist men in the nation and should be a valuable leader for UofL next season.
Areas for improvement: Siva must continue honing his decision making after committing a team-high 131 turnovers and improve his 24 percent three-point shooting.
Chane Behenan Behanan enjoyed a solid freshman season, finishing strong in the NCAA Tournament. A good rebounder and low post scorer, Behanan should be one of the top front court players in the Big East next season.
Gorgui Dieng One of the nation's top shot blockers and rebounders, Dieng became a defensive force in the middle for the Cardinals. He should be the top center in the Big East next season and one of the few game-changers in the middle nationally.
Areas for improvement: Dieng needs to add lower body strength and continue honing his offensive skill set. Dieng made solid strides offensively as a sophomore and if he adds a reliable post-move to his arsenal will be a sure-fire NBA prospect.
Wayne Blackshear The real Wayne Blackshear didn't show up this season after two shoulder surgeries, but fans saw glimpses of his explosive offensive ability against West Virginia and Kentucky. The Cardinals won't struggle to score next season with the highly skilled Blackshear on the wing.
Areas for improvement: Blackshear simply needs to work himself back into basketball shape after missing significant time because of injury. He'll also need to be diligent learning Pitino's complicated defensive system, though he gained valuable experience that should pay dividends next season.
Luke Hancock Hancock, a 6'6 wing, improves Louisville's perimeter length and skill. Though he's not as dangerous a three-point shooter as Kyle Kuric, Hancock is a better all-around player who led George Mason in assists as a sophomore. Surprisingly athletic, the multi-dimensional Hancock can create offense off the bounce for himself and teammates.
Areas for improvement: Competing in the Big East will be an adjustment for Hancock, but practicing with the Cards this season should help. Though Hancock made 35 percent from three as a sophomore, he attempted just 64 shots beyond the arch. So outside shooting is a likely area for improvement.
Russ Smith Really quick off the bounce, Smith was a pleasant surprise as a sophomore. Smith has a natural scoring knack, led Louisville with 85 steals and improved his decision making as the season progressed.
Areas for improvement: Smith had more turnovers than assists and made just 31 percent of this three-point attempts this season. He needs to continue improving his ball handling, decision making and outside shooting skills, while adding more strength on his thin 6'0 frame.