"Our success will be based on how healthy we are," said Pitino, who is sixth among active coaches in winning percentage. "We have quality, but not necessarily quantity. Our demise late last year was due to our injuries. If we can come back healthy, we can be a better team than last year. That's predicated on Ellis Myles and Taquan Dean being 100 percent. At full strength, we should not only be a very competitive basketball team, but high on experience."
While the health of Dean and Myles is paramount to the Cardinals' fortunes, foremost among the returnees is All-America forward Francisco Garcia. A finalist for national player of the year honors last season, the 6-7 junior scored in double-figures in 22 games and in 42 for his career, Garcia scored over 20 on 10 occasions as a sophomore, including three of the last four.
"Francisco is one of the top three or four players in the country," said Pitino. "He's a great talent and has improved as much as any player I've ever coached from the time he entered to where he is today. That's due to a lot of hard work on his part. Right now he's unguardable. No one has been able to stop him from either scoring or creating scoring opportunities with his outstanding passing ability. He's gained another 10-15 pounds of strength and has gotten so much stronger that I didn't even think it was possible to get him to this level."
Garcia ranked among the Conference USA leaders in scoring (16.4, 4th in C-USA), assists (4.7, third), steals (1.9, fourth), blocked shots (1.4, 8th), free throw percentage (.797, 9th) and assists-to-turnovers ratio (1.66, 10th). He will open his junior year just 182 points short of becoming the Cardinals' 54th career 1,000-point scorer.
Pitino will welcome the return of senior forward Ellis Myles, who sat out last season to fully recover from a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee suffered late in the 2002-03 season. A solid rebounder and interior defender who started the Cardinals's first 24 games before his injury, Myles grabbed 11 or more rebounds on seven occasions that season and was seventh in C-USA with a 7.9 rebounding average.
"Ellis gives us something we did not have last year -- a low post presence," said Pitino. "He's one of the more physical players in the country, is capable of averaging 10 or 11 rebounds a game, and is an outstanding low post passer."
Another starter coming off surgery is 6-3 guard Taquan Dean, a tri-captain for the Cardinals as a sophomore last season when he averaged 10.8 points a game. Dean underwent surgery in the spring to repair two partial tears in his abdominal wall and should return to full participation in early September. Before the injury, he was among the nation's leaders in three-point accuracy (47.7 pct., 10th in NCAA) and threes made (3.4, 17th in NCAA) over the first half of the season.
"Taquan is coming off double hernia surgery and is a question mark right now," said Pitino. "It's tough to gauge if he'll be 100 percent to start the year. Obviously, he's a great weapon as one of the better shooters in the country and he was the catalyst to our defense last year. Once he got injured, we weren't the same basketball team. He was applying all the defensive pressure up front when we were an unbelievable defensive team."
Dean adapted well to the point guard role last season after starting 22 games as a freshman at shooting guard. He led the Cards with 71 three-point goals (seventh most ever in a single season at U of L) while connecting on 40.1 percent at the three point line.
When Dean moves over to shooting guard, 6-3 guard Brandon Jenkins will operate at the point. Jenkins committed just four turnovers in the last 11 games, starting four outings when Dean was injured.
Another member of last year's starting lineup returns in guard/forward Larry O'Bannon, a 6-4 senior who averaged 10.3 points and 2.7 rebounds last season while scoring in double figures on 15 occasions.
Fellow senior Otis George, an energetic 6-8 reserve forward, returns after averaging 5.6 points and 4.8 rebounds as a junior, ranking as the Cards' No. 3 rebounder.
The Cardinals added much-needed frontcourt size and an impressive shooting guard among the four talented freshman that are new additions to the U of L roster this season.
Center Terrance Farley, a 6-10 local product from Pleasure Ridge Park High School, averaged 11.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and blocked a school-record 133 shots and will provide the Cardinals with depth at center.
Powerful Brian Johnson, a 6-8 forward from Glenarden, Md., averaged 13.9 points and 9.3 rebounds as a senior in helping Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. to a 38-0 record and the nation's top ranking in the USA Today high school poll.
Talented Juan Diego Palacios, a 6-8 forward from Medellin, Columbia, averaged 20.2 points and 9.3 rebounds as a senior last year at Our Savior New American School in Centereach, N.Y. while earning third-team All-America honors by USA Today.
Guard Lorrenzo Wade, a 6-5 sharpshooter from Las Vegas, Nev., played his final prep season at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., averaging 14.3 points, 3.5 assists and 2.8 steals in leading Hargrave to a 25-1 record and the nation's top ranking among prep schools.
Four Cardinals departed from last year's successful unit, including starting forward and 1,000-point scorer Luke Whitehead, center Kendall Dartez, athletic guard Alhaji Mohammed and long-range shooter Nate Daniels, who transferred after one year at U of L.
U of L's schedule will remain as one of the nation's toughest. Non-conference opponents include such teams as Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee as well as a stellar field the Cards will face as a participant in the Maui Classic to open the season.