Coming off a 20-10 season and a first round NCAA Tournament loss to Xavier, Pitino's troops, led by preseason All-America forward Francisco Garcia, have their sights set much higher this season.
And while the Cardinals struggled through an injury-plaqued season in 2004, Louisville fans are eager to see a healthy Ellis Myles and Taquan Dean return to action. Myles, who missed the entire season following knee surgery and Dean, who played the second half of the season hampered by a sports hernia, figure to be near full strength when the team travels to Hawaii later next month to open the season.
Second year U of L Assistant Coach Reggie Theus, a former NBA standout, says he likes the hunger the team has shown in recent weeks leading up to the start of practice.
"I can already tell that this team is going to be a joy to coach," Theus said recently. "These guys are hungry and when you have hungry players they're going to do anything and everything that you tell them to do. These guys are killing themselves in individual instructions."
One of Louisville's biggest problems last season was an inability to compete on the boards, especially during the second half of the season. However, Theus believes that newcomers Brian Johnson, a 6'9, 240-pound center from Arlington, VA and 6'8, 250-pound power forward Juan Diego Tello Palacios will provide the answers around the basket for this group.
"We go from not having any booty at all to having a lot of booty," Theus explained. "These guys are bangers. There won't be anybody that can out tough us this year. I don't think anybody can come here and remotely push us around."
"Last year we got pushed around and out-rebounded and I don't think that is going to happen this season," Theus continued. "Juan Diego Palacios is 6'9 and weights 250-pounds and he's solid. And Brian Johnson is a lot more skilled than people give him credit for. He can shoot the ball, put it on the floor and he is strong. And when you add those two guys with Ellis Myles, who is probably one of the toughest guys in America, you've got no problems in the post area. We have a great combination of players."
Theus expects that both Johnson and Palacios, both consensus top 40 prospects as high school seniors last season, will become major contributors this season and admits they'll have to play up to their enormous potential if the Cardinals are to reach theirs.
"Our opportunity to have a great season evolves a lot around what they are capable of doing as freshmen," Theus predicted. "When you look at them, you know they're young but they don't appear to be. They don't walk like freshmen or talk like freshmen and they don't act like first year players."
With perhaps his most talented roster since replacing Denny Crum in 2001, Pitino's squad has their sights fixed on the big prize, a trip to St. Louis next spring for the Final Four.
For that to happen though, Thues says the Cardinals will have to stay healthy and become a great defensive ball club.
"Obviously, the goal is to be in St. Louis," Theus said. "We'll have to stay healthy and become a great defensive team for that to happen."
NOTE For a more in-depth and extensive conversation with Reggie Theus, be sure to check out the October issue of Inside The Ville Magazine.