Cards Eye Return to Final Four

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- At first glance, Louisville big men Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings hardly look like freshmen.

Good thing.

If the Cardinals are to reach the lofty goals set for them by coach Rick Pitino, their precocious big men are going to have to play with a maturity beyond their years.

"Freshmen are freshmen," Pitino said Tuesday. "They physically look like juniors, but they play like freshmen. So it's something that we've got to overcome with the strength of the other eight guys."

Luckily for Pitino, there's plenty of strength to go around. Louisville returns four starters from last year's 27-9 team, which reached the regional final and finished No. 6 in the final rankings. While Pitino allows this team may be the most gifted he's had since coming to Louisville in 2001, he's not ready to say it's as good as the 2005 team that went to the Final Four.

"It's the deepest team and the most athletic team," Pitino said. "Whether they're as good as 2005, 2005 was a great passing team, great shooting team and they understood how to play the game. Anytime you have two freshmen that are going to play as significant as the two centers, there are still some question marks."

There won't be a lot of time for Pitino to get his questions answered. He called Louisville's schedule -- which includes nonconference games against Kentucky, UNLV, Minnesota and Western Kentucky as well as 18 games in the typically brutal Big East -- as difficult as any in the country.

"I don't think I've ever seen a conference this strong as long as I've been coaching basketball," Pitino said. "You have seven teams in the Top 20, maybe three or four in the Top 10 ... plus another three or four that wouldn't surprise me if they were ranked this year."

Yet Pitino remains confident the Cardinals can compete, thanks in part to a couple of field trips the players took over the summer to NBA camps.

"The thing they were most amazed at were the drive and the passion that (Kevin) Garnett had with the Celtics," Pitino said. "That's the thing that stuck out the most going to the practices. Here's a guy coming off a championship and the reason he was so hungry is he felt success and how good it made him feel."

It's a feeling the Cardinals had, if only briefly, during their deep run into the NCAA tournament last spring. One that Pitino thinks will propel them this season.

"We had to climb an awful big mountain (last year) and finishing the way we did was very rewarding and the guys got a nice taste of what glory means," Pitino said.

So much so that senior guard Andre McGee had a request during the end of a tipoff luncheon on Tuesday. After thanking fans for their support the last three years, McGee said he's hoping they'll take some time in the spring to show off a national title.

"Times are tough, but I'm hoping you can join us so we can have a parade in early April (downtown) celebrating a championship," he said.

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