Dick Vitale believes that Kentucky will be the top-ranked team in college basketball next season, but it is risky to downplay Louisville now that Russ Smith is returning.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The University of Louisville will be the first NCAA champion to defend its title, while attacking with its leading scorer since 2007.
That player is Russ Smith, who announced on Wednesday that he will return to U of L for his senior season. One of Smith's teammates will be Luke Hancock, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Here is an intriguing note on Hancock: He's just the third Final Four MOP who'll return to college basketball in the last 16 years.
The last team to return its leading scorer (Joakim Noah) and the best player from the Final Four (also Noah) was Florida – and the Gators went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007.
Won and run?
Not this Louisville team. Smith and Hancock will be joined by Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear, Kevin Ware, Montrezl Harrell and Stephan Van Treese, better than 73 percent of the scoring from a Louisville team that averaged 74.4 points per game this season. Rick Pitino has more talent coming back at Louisville than he had coming back after he won the 1996 NCAA title at Kentucky.
Dick Vitale still is unwilling to pick Louisville as the team to beat in college basketball next season.
"With Russ Smith coming back, without question Louisville starts next season as a top five team," Vitale said. "But Kentucky is Number One."
There was not a millisecond of hesitation in Vitale's powerful voice. In fact, Vitale said that he sent this note to UK coach John Calipari the other day:
"You'll be the only guy in the country who'll be coaching two Top 20 teams next season. Your first team will be Number One. And you're second team will belong in the Top 20."
Here is all I ask: I want the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to promise to put the Wildcats and the Cardinals on opposite sides of the bracket. Kentucky will be loaded, primarily with freshmen. Louisville will be loaded, mainly with juniors and seniors. Kentucky won the 2012 title. Louisville delivered in 2013.
There is one way for this story to end: Set the bracket so the only place the Cardinals and Wildcats could meet would be the NCAA championship game. It would be the ultimate rubber match.
Vitale does not favor Kentucky simply because this is Calipari's most talented group of incoming players – with or without the addition of top-rated recruit Andrew Wiggins. Like many, he compares the return to Kyle Wiltjer, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress to the veteran blend that Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb gave the Wildcats' championship team a year ago.
That's the plan – and it's a sensible plan.
But here is where I fussed at Vitale: He believes that the addition of freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison automatically gives Kentucky an elite backcourt.
Sorry, Dick. The Harrison twins are terrific. But they won't be better than Russ Smith – and the guard that Rick Pitino decides to pair with Smith in the backcourt, no matter if it is Ware or one of three recruits – Chris Jones, Terry Rozier or Anton Gill.
Smith was as productive, dynamic and disruptive as any guard in college basketball last season. He averaged 22.3 points and nearly eight made free throws per game during the NCAA Tournament. He knocked loose 15 steals and made 11 three-pointers during U of L's title run.
Smith didn't put his push toward professional basketball on hold because of major holes in his game. Russ Smith is coming back to become a better playmaker. His shot selection needs another upgrade, similar to the upgrade it made this season. Smith must return to the weight room and add about 10 pounds.
I expect Smith to do all that.
Then I expect that we'll be fussing about whether Louisville or Kentucky is the better college basketball team for the entire 2013-14 season.