After starting the season slowly while nursing injuries and breaking in four new freshmen, Pitino's Cardinals finished the season 24-10 and won eight of their last ten games, concluding with a, 72-69, loss to Texas A&M in second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"There are two things you want with your basketball team," Pitino said. "The first is that you hope it reaches its potential and the second is to go to a tournament and perform well. In both cases I was extremely excited. This season couldn't have ended any better with the exception of us advancing, but to finish second in the Big East, make the tournament and see our young players reach their potential is exciting not only for this year but the future."
Once David Padgett and Brandon Jenkins got healthy and freshmen Edgar Sosa, Jerry Smith, Earl Clark and Derrick Caracter figured things out, the Cardinals developed into a dangerous team late in the season. With everyone returning next season except the 6-3 Jenkins, Pitino is excited about the future.
"The team left very disappointed that we lost (to Texas A&M), which is the case most of the time unless you win it all," Pitino said. "I was delighted with this basketball team this year. They improved and got better and I'm really excited about our future because of the development of our young players."
Sosa, Smith, Clark and Caracter averaged nearly 30 points per game as freshman. Sosa, who scored 31 points in the season-ending loss, will return as the starting point guard next season. Smith and Clark also started several games, while Caracter, who missed several games while serving a suspensions, became a major factor late in the season.
"I think they were as good as any freshmen in the county as a group, but they have so much upside," Pitino said. "They're not even at 50-60 percent of their potential and they'll get better defensively. That's the most exciting thing about the four of them."
Clearly, Pitino is expecting each of his talented freshmen back next season, including the 6-9 Caracter. Pitino said Caracter would remain in Louisville this summer working on his game and his weight.
"Derrick is not leaving our side," Pitino joked.
Louisville this summer.
Pitino said he's most excited about his young core of returning players because they each care about winning and also are motivated to one day play for pay in the NBA. He said those two motivating factors should keep his freshmen in the gym and the weight room during the off-season.
"This is a highly, highly motivated group," Pitino said. "This is a group that not only wants to go further in the tournament – that's why it was so great for us to get into this tournament. They got a good taste of it and they were really upset that they lost, which was great."
Pitino also said David Padgett will be "shut down" for 45 days and "won't do anything" during that timeframe in hopes of being 100 percent by August. Padgett had double knee surgery last spring and played at about 85 percent last season.
Pitino also hopes to diversify his lineup next season, expanding several of the returnees roles. Pitino said Caracter could play some power forward, while forwards Earl Clark and Juan Palacios and point guard Edgar Sosa could play multiple positions.
"If we can get Derrick down to the weight we want he'll play some power forward," Pitino said. "I'm going to play either Tello or Earl a little bit at small forward and I'm going to play guys at multiple positions. I'm going to play Andre and Edgar a little bit together and I'll play Tello and Earl together. We're going to have some exciting combinations."
Pitino also said the 2007-08 schedule would present more challenges early in the season for his team. The Cardinals will play at Kentucky, take on Purdue in the John Wooden Classic, host Dayton, and could play North Carolina and UNLV in Las Vegas in an exempt tournament. "The reason I'm doing that is I think we are very much up for the task," Pitino said. "It'll be one of the toughest schedules that we'll have faced."
"We intend on playing a very competitive schedule next year. We're going to make our non-conference schedule even tougher because of the players we have coming back. We'll get tested very early on and that should be very exciting for our players."
Pitino also made clear he's not a candidate for the Kentucky job, left vacant when Tubby Smith resigned last week to accept the head coaching job at Minnesota.
"I came back to Louisville because of Tom Jurich," Pitino said. "I would never, ever leave to go to another college. T-Will and Sosa are like sons to me and I could never abandon Derrick Caracter. You don't leave Louisville for another college. I could never leave Tom Jurich or my players because they are my family. I'm too old to go anywhere else so you'll have to suffer with me for a few more years."