LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- At first glance, Rick Pitino's No. 2 ranked University of Louisville basketball team looks long and deep, athletic and experienced.
But this will not be a team that is about first glances. The eye test is not the test that these Cardinals will have to pass if they are to return to the Final Four.
At NBADraft.net, Indiana's Cody Zeller is projected as the No. 1 overall pick and Christian Watford is a projected second rounder. Kentucky has "only" three players projected in the lottery -- unless you refer to the more recent mock draft produced by Bleacher Report for the Los Angeles Times. In that one, the Wildcats have four.
In either event, Gorgui Dieng is the only Cardinal projected in any round in next season's draft by those two evaluators at present.
U of L has talent, probably more next-level talent at various stages of development than it's being given credit for. And Peyton Siva is receiving preseason All-American honors. But unlike the teams on either side of it in the top three of the preseason rankings, this team is not being tabbed as a potential national finalist (and THE pick for national champion by both Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas) based primarily on its talent.
It is being picked for something more, for the chemistry it showed in persevering through injury and pushing back to the Final Four last April, for the seasoning it got in that journey and its experience returning, and for its coach who, coming off of one of his more impressive reclamation projects, appears to once again be working that magic, with a team deep -- perhaps deeper than any other contender -- tough and talented enough to fit precisely his style.
There was an indefinable quality about last season's team. They seemed to pull on those infrared uniforms and take on an air of confidence that they had no right to have. Yet they believed they were going to win the Big East Tournament.
I booked only three nights of hotels for the Big East Tournament. The team wound up staying four and cutting down the nets. They went west for the NCAA Tournament and did not come back till they had won a trip to the Final Four. They packed for two rounds. They did not plan to come home.
Sitting down to write the story after U of L beat Florida in the Elite Eight in Phoenix, the first sentence I typed was, "I have no idea how that just happened."
So here's the question. How does a team that put together such a fantastic run of infrared and inspiration replicate it this season? Everybody remembers the final chapter. But there were offensive droughts and close calls aplenty.
Pitino, when I spoke with him in a one-on-one interview, parts of which will air later this week on WDRB, acknowledged this is not the type of team you automatically think of as a championship contender.
"But we're a team," he said. "That can be very good, and we can be very dangerous if we improve and get to our potential."
For the Cardinals, it will be a question of talent, teamwork and well, something intangible. Two of those three appear to be in good supply to start the season. The addition of Montrezl Harrell and Luke Hancock, the emergence of Kevin Ware and the return of a healthy Wayne Blackshear all are major boosts to a team that already returned the nucleus of Dieng, Siva and Chane Behanan.
As for the chemistry, the good vibes appear never to have ended from last season. It was a happy bunch at media day on Sunday.
"We all are (happy)," Pitino said. "We had a great time last year. Everybody says we're family and we love the players, but I haven't always loved all my teams. I love these guys as individuals, as people. And we are a family and a close-knit team and we have a great time together. We laugh a lot and we work real hard. Yesterday we went double sessions and we really went after it in the evening sessions. God, we had to tone it down. It was a great, great practice.
"What's not to be happy about? They won a Big East championship, they went to a Final Four, everybody in town thinks they're terrific, and the coach loves them. What's not to be happy about? It's a pretty good life, I wish I was them."
Pitino has his coaches assign effort grades to every player in every practice. The scale is 1 to 5, with 5 being a maximum effort. Generally, he doesn't start seeing fours and fives until mid-November and December when players get a real feel for what the coaches expect.
After Saturday's practices, he gave out mainly fours, four-pluses and fives.
"We've been using this system for 7-8 years and this is the earliest I've seen fives," Pitino said.
In those areas of attitude, effort and chemistry, Pitino raves about his team. Right after its first public scrimmage he was beaming over the potential.
But now comes the question of teamwork, and whether this team can blend those other elements into its basketball performance. Regardless of how high the Cardinals' ranking is, they don't have the margin of error of a team with the nation's No. 1 player or one with four first-round draft picks. If there's a championship run in this group, it will be won less with lottery picks and than lots of execution.
In that area, Pitino says there's a long season ahead.
"We're a work in progress," Pitino said. "I'm impressed with what I see, but I don't think we're anywhere near our potential, because we're such a fundamentally unsound ball club. . . . Although we have a lot of talent, although we are close, our weakness is poor fundamentals. We don't pass the ball real well. We don't throw the right pass all the time. . . . If we don't turn the ball over, we're going to be a heck of a basketball team. We just have to teach a lot of things to a lot of individuals. But that's what makes coaching fun."
The thing Pitino has this season that he hasn't always had at U of L is a head start. His three leaders went through all of last season's ups and downs and already enter this campaign with his mindset.
"My job is to make sure everybody stays level-headed," Siva said. "I've been with some of these guys three years, some of them two, and there's been a lot of blood, sweat and tears put in at the gym. So there are guys here who have earned it, but the rankings and all that don't get you anything. We just want to win more games than last year and go one game further."
The spirit of last season's tournament run is alive and well at U of L. This season, Pitino and his players are hoping that their talent can carry them to that next step.