Pitino: Cards better next season

Rick Pitino says his team has positive momentum heading into next season after making a thrilling run to the Final Four and believes the Cardinals will be better in 2012-13.

Rick Pitino said Monday that Louisville has momentum heading into next season after making a surprising run to the Final Four and believes the Cardinals will be better in 2012-13 despite losing starters Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith.

Louisville finished the regular season unranked after dropping four of their last six games. But the Cardinals got hot in the post-season, winning the Big East Tournament on their way to the Final Four, where Pitino's squad lost to Kentucky, the eventual champions.

Though Louisville struggled offensively, the Cardinals rode the nation's top-rated defense all the way to New Orleans. With starters Peyton Siva, Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng returning next season, Pitino believes his team will be improved at both ends of the floor next season.

"We'll be better [defensively]," Pitino said. "Kyle and Chris weren't necessarily two great defensive players but they understood the scouting report.

"[And] we'll be much better offensively next year. Luke Hancock is a terrific basketball player in all phases of the game. Now he has to improve defensively, but he can replace Kyle Kuric without a problem. Luke will probably go to the two-guard spot along with Kevin [Ware]. We're more than capable of replacing those two guys and they had excellent careers for us."

Though Hancock hasn't played a minute at Louisville, Pitino named the 6'6 transfer from George Mason as a co-captain for next season. Hancock practiced with the Cardinals this season.

"It tells you about his leadership abilities," Pitino said. "He's one of our better basketball players, but that's not why he's a co-captain. It's because his leadership abilities really, really stick out."

Peyton Siva can be one of the top players in the country if he improves his shooting.
Whie Hancock should provide a boost, Siva, the Big East Tourney MVP, Behanan, the West Region MVP, and Dieng, who broke UofL's single season record for blocked shots, are the main reasons why Louisville will enter next season as a consensus Top 5 team and one of the top contenders to win the national title.

"Chane had a terrific season, Gorgui had a terrific season, Peyton had a great post-season," said Pitino. "So we have a lot of momentum going into next season. They feel real good about themselves."

Pitino said Siva, who elevated his play during the post-season and was named co-captain with Hancock, could be one of the top players in college basketball next season if he improves his outside shooting.

"He's got to learn to score and guard consistently," Pitino said. "His footwork has to get better off his one on one move and he has to learn to shoot the ball better. If he becomes an outstanding shooter he could be one of the best players in college basketball. He's got to really work on that."

Pitino said Dieng, one of the nation's top shot blockers, needs to add more strength during the off-season.

"He has to working on going left, but he had a very good year," Pitino said. "Mostly with Gorgui it's strength. We want him to play at 250."

There are more reasons for optimism next season. Pitino expects freshmen Kevin Ware, Wayne Blackshear, Angel Nunez and Zach Price to elevate their games during the off-season and become significant factors as sophomores.

"You haven't really seen the real Kevin Ware, the guy we see in practice," Pitino said. "Sometimes we just look up at practice and ask, 'did you see that?' The guy comes in and we play him at the wrong position, first of all. He's got to play the wing, he can't play the point."

Blackshear missed most of the season after undergoing preseason shoulder surgery, but returned late in the season to gain valuable experience for next season. Blackshear flashed his promise with nine points against Kentucky in the Final Four, including two impressive dunks against the Wildcats.

"All of a sudden in the last week of practice he started showing some of the things we saw in high school," Pitino said. "We've got a lot of momentum with those guys."

Pitino said Blackshear and Behanan need to improve their shooting during the off-season.

"We have to improve his shooting. His form is very good but his trajectory is too low," Pitino said of the 6'5 Blackshear. "We'e got to improve Chane's outside shot. He brings the ball too far behind his head and it affects his balance. But these things are very correctable."

Pitino also announced that power forward Rakeem Buckles will miss next season with his second knee injury. With Buckles out of the lineup, Pitino is counting on Nunez to add strength this summer and provide depth behind Behanan at the four next year.

"We want Angel to backup Chane," Pitino said. "He obviously needs to get stronger, be he has as much potential as anybody on our basketball team. He's the biggest gym rat we have."

Louisville also returns top reserve Russ Smith, who keyed several Cardinals wins as a sophomore, including the Elite 8 comeback against Florida.

"He was the most valuable player this year," said Pitino. "He was the MVP of both teams. And that pretty much sums it up. He has to cut down turnovers and bad shots. By the time we got to the tournament I really felt he cut down on most of the bad shots."

Pitino said that front court backup Stephen Van Treese will be ready to play next season after sitting out this season with a knee injury. Forward Mike Marra's status remains unclear after Pitino stated that his knee surgery was more difficult than Buckles.

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