Up and Down Season EndsLouisville was a hard team to figure out in 2009-10. The Cardinals were good enough to beat Syracuse, one of four No. 1 NCAA Tournament seeds, twice but also inconsistent enough to lose to Charlotte, Western Carolina, St. John's, and get ripped in the first round of the NCAA's by California.
"I think our team did the best they could this year because in a lot of areas we're very limited," Pitino said. "But they did much better than I anticipated before the season. We improved and kept getting better. Guys like [Jared] Swopshire and Samardo [Samuels] kept improving so we got better as the season went along. Getting 11 [Big East] wins our guys should be very happy with that season."
One of the top defensive teams the past few seasons, Louisville didn't have the personnel to maintain those standards in their half court zone or full court press this season.
"This is one of the most interesting seasons I've had as a basketball coach," said Pitino. "I think we were free throws away from actually competing at the top because it cost us three games. We weren't able to play our style this year and had to play differently to win. And we did it and we accomplished it and the players deserve a lot of credit for doing it. We hope to tune in next year back to our style."
Pitino hopes that returning players like Samardo Samuels, who earned third team All-Conference honors, Jared Swopshire, Peyton Siva and Terrence Jennings, learned a lot from playing increased roles this season.
"The interesting thing about this season and why it's so pleasing is outside of Edgar Sosa nobody had a good year statistically," Pitino said. "Samardo [hasn't]. TJ hasn't had a brilliant statistical season. Swop hasn't. So nobody had a really good season by themselves and they were probably inches away from winning 14 Big East games. It was a very interesting and intriguing year. I think it was role players stepping into primary situations at a very young age and growing into them."
Era EndsLouisville's last game in Freedom Hall was a classic.
After 54 years playing in the historic arena, Louisville's final game fittingly came against No. 1 Syracuse. Fans in attendance were treated to a special day, with both championship teams on hand, plus several former stars and Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum.
Most importantly, though, Louisville went out of Freedom Hall with an important 78-68 win over the Orange, a win that locked down an NCAA berth for the Cardinals.
"I felt pressure for the first time as a coach because there were so many festivities and the guys coming back, and the NCAA berth being on the line against the number one team in the country and closing out Freedom Hall," Pitino said. "Last night I got up at about two in the morning and said, ‘What if we lose?' No bid, people going home very said. These guys came all this way and they have to go home. I just started thinking, and then I took a shot of bourbon...no, I'm just kidding.
"(But) it was a wonderful night. I'm real proud of our guys. I told them at halftime, I said ‘Look guys they're shutting off the interior.' They were clamping down on Samardo (Samuels). I said, ‘You're taking all great shots, but they're going to fall. Then I said, ‘Kyle, you go in there and dominate this game.'"
Enter the unlikely hero, little used Kyle Kuric. Kuric didn't score in the first half against the Orange. In the final 20 minutes at Freedom Hall, Kuric cemented his place as a Louisville Legend.
Kuric, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard from Evansville, Ind., scored a career-high 22 points - all in the second half - as the Cards erased a five-point halftime deficit and outscored the Orange 48-33 after halftime on their way to their 682nd win (against only 141 losses) at Freedom Hall.
"I'm really, really happy for the things he did today," Pitino said. "He's a great kid. This is going to be a great step in his life. I think everybody is going to remember the game that closed Freedom Hall, so I think it's going to be a confidence boost for him."
Kuric connected on 9 of 11 shots, including 4 of 6 from three-point range. His dunk, his first field goal of the game, with 14:25 to play started a 6-0 UofL run that gave the Cards the lead for good.
"That first dunk got me going," Kuric said. "After that my confidence kept growing and growing."
"We knew he was a good player, he just doesn't play that much," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "He just got going once he got that dunk and he got a little confidence into him. They missed so many shots that we got a little bit lax defensively. They were missing so many shots that we thought they were going to miss them all. But he made a couple of tough shots and I think he got a couple of layups in transition."
Leadership NeededEdgar Sosa, Jerry Smith and Reginald Delk – Louisville's three seniors – weren't strong leaders on the court for the Cardinals. That's one of the reasons UofL struggled this season.
"I don't think we've got good leadership," Pitino said. "I think the leadership comes from the coaches and we've had to do that the whole year. That being said Edgar Sosa's attitude has been great this year. I'm really happy with Edgar. When his season is over I'm really proud of him. He's been quite special, Edgar."
It will be interesting to see who steps into the leadership role next season. Preston Knowles will be the only senior on the roster and could be ready to assume more of a leadership role. Knowles is a fiery player who often physically moves teammates into proper defensive position on the court. He's also a vocal player who doesn't seem afraid to bark orders and provide direction to younger teammates. He could be a prime target as a leader next season.
Louisville needs Samardo Samuels, the team's best player, to step up and provide leadership. But Samuels, a soft-spoken junior to be, doesn't show signs as a natural leader.
The Cardinals other McDonald's All-American, Peyton Siva, could ultimately emerge as the programs best leader. Siva is a competitor, winner and plays hard. He's also vocal and commands respect. Though he's young, Siva might be Louisville's best hope for improved leadership next season.
Quickness Upgrade RequiredRick Pitino needs to improve his program's quickness.
Louisville struggled against guard-oriented teams like California this season. The Cardinals also lost handily to teams like Villanova and Marquette that featured small, quick guards who created problems for Louisville at both ends of the court. Louisville played better against physical teams like Syracuse, West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, despite losing the battle of the boards to those teams. The Cardinals defeated Syracuse twice, split with Cincinnati and gave away wins against both Pittsburgh and West Virginia on the road.
"I think we played better against size than we do quickness," Pitino said. "Quickness hurts us, especially like a Greg Monroe-type of player hurts us more than the two big guys from Syracuse."
Peyton Siva will provide an upgrade in the quickness department at the point next season. Though Edgar Sosa had a solid season for the Cardinals, Sosa isn't nearly as quick as Siva, who needs to become stronger during the off-season, particularly when he's handling the basketball.
Preston Knowles should also improve Louisville's quickness at shooting guard, though Jerry Smith's outside shooting and toughness will be missed. If Justin Coleman qualifies, Louisville's athleticism at small forward will be upgraded. A big-time athlete, the 6-foot-4 Coleman is ranked one of Scout.com Top 25 prospects in the Class of 2010.
Another incoming freshman, point guard Russell Smith, is extremely quick with the ball and is a high scoring prospect who needs to add strength.
Inside, Pitino hopes to add 6-foot-10 Gorgui Dieng to the roster. Dieng, an outstanding shot blocker, could provide an immediate athletic upgrade in the post behind returning starting center Samardo Samuels.
Looking Ahead to Next SeasonCan Louisville be a better team next season without starters Edgar Sosa, Jerry Smith and Reginald Delk?
Peyton Siva, if he learns to be stronger with the ball, could upgrade the point position. Siva is quicker than Edgar Sosa and has more of a point guard mentality than did Sosa. He had some outstanding moments as a freshman, and next season will take on the starting point guard role.
Louisville's two biggest problems this season were at forward, though the backcourt never lived up to its billing. Terrence Jennings never developed into the power forward role envisioned for him and suffered through a subpar sophomore campaign. If the 6-foot-10 Jennings dedicates himself to improvement during the off-season he could provide an answer at the position next season.
If Jennings can't make an impact at power forward, Louisville again will have to rely on Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles. Swopshire made solid improvements as a sophomore but isn't an elite Big East forward – yet. Neither is Buckles, though the 6-foot-8 power forward had a breakout NCAA Tournament against California, scoring a career-high 20 points.
Incoming freshman Justin Coleman could be an immediate impact player at small forward, provided he's academically eligible. Coleman, a 6-foot-4 wing, is a Top 25 prospect who could improve Louisville's quickness and athleticism on the perimeter.
Preston Knowles is set to take over the starting role at the two-guard. A major contributor for three years, Knowles is a solid defender, provides energy and is capable of getting hot with his outside shooting. He needs to improve his shot selection and decision-making before next season.
Kyle Kuric and Mike Marra each gained valuable experience this season and should play supporting roles off the bench again next season. If Coleman doesn't make it, Kuric might be Louisville's best option at small forward. He's capable of being a solid contributor, evidenced by his 22-point effort in the season finale against No. 1-ranked Syracuse. Marra, regarded as an excellent outside marksman, struggled with his three-point shooting as a freshman, though he did make four three-pointers against Syracuse.
Manhattan transfer Chris Smith will be expected to provide depth behind Knowles at shooting guard. Smith, the brother of NBA star JR Smith, is regarded as a physical defender and an outstanding rebounder at 6-3, 205-pounds.
Depth behind Peyton Siva will fall to freshmen Russell Smith, a skinny 5-foot-11 point guard from South Kent (CT) Prep, and Elijah Justice, who led Shelby Valley (KY) to the state championship Saturday night with a win over Louisville (KY) Ballard. Smith was a prolific scorer in the New York Catholic league, but improved his point guard skills this season in prep school. Justice was named the Sweet 16 MVP and will walk-on at Louisville next season.
Louisville also hopes to add Gorgui Dieng to the roster this spring. Pitino devoted considerable attention to the 6-10 shot blocker after Dieng emerged in his first season in the United States at Huntington Prep after arriving from Senegal. Dieng would give the Cardinals more length behind Samuels at the center spot, allowing Jennings to possibly spend more time working at power forward.