The Louisville "family"

ATLANTA – The bond formed by Rick Pitino's closest team ever was forged by setbacks and success.

The journey began with last year's unexpected run to the Final Four and loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals. The run to this year's national title game has created a unit much closer than any ordinary team.

"I think anytime you have success, a family is formed," Pitino said Sunday. "You don't see close-knit teams, reunions for teams that finish .500."

If success serves as the foundation for a family, it's no wonder these Cardinals are so tight. Their 34 wins are already a school record, topping the 33 wins from the 1980 title team and 2005 Final Four participants.

This is a group that lives together. Eats together. Watches film of upcoming opponents together. Bowls together. Goes to women's basketball games together. Russ Smith painted his body red and was joined by teammates for a women's soccer game in the cold earlier this season.

Their practices double as family therapy, sessions so tough that games are viewed as off days.

"If you see us practice, you'd think we'd hate each other," Gorgui Dieng said. "Seriously. You see Montrezl and Chane hitting each other and everything. … Slime, he's very close to Russ Smith but you'd just think they just want to kill each other.

They don't hate each other though. Like any healthy family, everyone contributes and everyone has a role. Chane Behanan is the self-described "ladies man" of the team. He's immediately ready with descriptions for nearly all of his teammates.

"Russ, I'd say he's the dramatic of the family," Behanan said. "He's the most dramatic person I've ever met."

Siva's the serious one. Van Treese is just goofy.

"We always compare him to the Space Jam monster, the tall one," Chane riffed. "If you all haven't seen that, go watch it."

Montrezl Harrell is the tough guy. Luke Hancock is the team's "soul." Tim Henderson gets bullied - in a good way, according to Behanan. Henderson was a marked man after he began to doze on the team flight back from New York after winning the Big East title.

"I was trying to sleep and they were putting ice cubes on pants or on my head while I was asleep," Henderson said. "I'd wake up and have a wet spot on my head or something. Finally, I'm realized I'm not going to sleep."

When Henderson arose, his teammates turned their attention to Michael Baffour, aka "Dark Slime." The fact that there's a player with a nickname like that – and that Pitino openly uses it with national media – is another hint of their affection for one another.

Those connections are a key reason why the Louisville bench has scored 20 or more points in 21 games this year: they trust each other to the point where anyone is comfortable stepping up when needed.

Kevin Ware's selflessness and the resolve of his "brothers" following his injury showed the nation that this Louisville team is more than a collection of individuals who play a game together. Tim Henderson's back-to-back 3s in Ware's place against Wichita State is the latest example of their unity.

Pitino summed up the group he has enjoyed coaching more than any other.

"You know, all these guys are so different. That's what makes up a great family."

Pitino recently had his team watch the ESPN documentary "Survive and Advance" that chronicles N.C. State's title run in 1983. The film shows the teammates gathered, still joining each other after 30 years to relive their youth and rekindle their own bonds.

"We weren't Cinderellas like N.C. State but I wanted them to understand that because they won a championship, for the rest of their lives they will sit around that table, and every year, they will get together for the rest of their lives," Pitino said.

Louisville players know that they now sit one game away from a lifetime of team reunions and status – alongside former stars like Darrell Griffith and Pervis Ellison – as Louisville legends.

"We wanted to get to that point and always come back, every some odd years, and just celebrate this one-time thing," Behanan said of watching the film.

"I think we've got a pretty good shot at it. Hopefully, our dreams come true."

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