Luke Hancock (left) and Russ Smith (right) are two members of Rick Pitino's remarkable four-player senior class.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Imagine this: A college basketball Senior Day where the spotlight will actually twist toward – gasp! – seniors.
Imagine this: Four guys who have never embarrassed anybody, except the recruiting gurus, if you go back and read what was said about them before they arrived at the University of Louisville.
Most of all you need to imagine their remarkable legacy, the one stirred by Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Stephan Van Treese and Tim Henderson. It's as easy as 1-2-3-4.
One (national title), two Final Fours, three conference titles (if Louisville defeats Connecticut Saturday) and four guys who will leave town with degrees. Over the last four seasons the Cardinals have won 115 games – five more than Louisville has won during any other four-season period. Three-star prospects, five-star results.
"You couldn't write it up any better (than this)," Hancock said.
No wonder Van Treese said he's been having sleepless nights thinking about his Senior Day Farewell Saturday afternoon against Connecticut at the KFC Yum! Center at 2 p.m. Smith is certain he will cry – and expects his coach, Rick Pitino, to reach for Kleenex, too.
Why? Because Smith remembers every dribble of the journey, a journey that has stretched over four improbable years.
"We all told each other, 'Nobody thinks anything of us and nobody could care less about us. So we have to make this place something to remember,' " Smith said.
Memories already abound – Madison Square Garden, The Miracle on Main Street, a first-round NCAA Tournament exit, The Final Four in New Orleans, five overtimes at Notre Dame, walloping Duke in Indianapolis. There's much more.
Atlanta. Wichita State. Michigan. Scissors. Ladders. An NCAA championship trophy and nets to take home to Louisville.
More fun this season. Another exclamation point can be added if the Cardinals defeat UConn. That will give the seniors at least a share of the American Athletic Conference title to go with the bounty they won in the Big East.
"It's great people will remember us," Hancock said. "But the story's not done yet. We can make this last a long time."
You never know what March (and April) will bring. What is assured is what these four guys have already achieved. It's substantial – and guaranteed to wipe the smirks off the faces of anybody cynical about the joys and possibilities of college basketball.
"It just shows you that sometimes it's not always about the (Kansas five-star freshman Andrew) Wiggins, the Jabari Parkers (another fabulous freshman at Duke) and the guys who get so much publicity," Pitino said.
Heck, even Pitino was fooled by what these guys have done. Assistant coach Ralph Willard had to talk him into recruiting Smith. The coach encouraged Van Treese to leave. Henderson was another Willard recommendation – and he was considered the second-best walk-on in the 2010 recruiting class behind Elisha Justice, who later transferred.
Don't forget Hancock. At least Smith and Van Treese earned three stars from the recruiting services. Hancock was given two. He turned down Toledo to sign with George Mason and only landed at Louisville because his college coach took a job in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Did I mention that he's the reigning Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Final Four?
"We're a bunch of winners," Smith said. "We do everything it takes to win. A lot of our guys don't get enough credit. This class doesn't get enough credit."
Van Treese actually arrived a year ahead of Smith and Henderson, an afterthought in a class headlined by Peyton Siva. He grew up in Indianapolis with Indiana University posters on the walls of his bedroom, but Tom Crean never offered a scholarship.
So Van Treese came to Louisville. He nearly left two years ago. Pitino wanted him to go. But he stayed. And Van Treese mattered. He's played more than half the minutes at center this season and he'll have to deliver defense and rebounding for this team to make another NCAA run. He has his degree in sports administration and might try coaching one day. But he wants to play overseas next season.
"It's still shocking we won a national championship," Van Treese said. "I grew up watching all the tournaments and my team actually won the bracket.
"It's funny. I have a bunch of 12-year-olds following me on Instagram and I'm thinking, 'That's how I was, looking up to those guys when I was watching IU.' "
Henderson will also exit with a degree in sports administration this spring. He might coach or become an athletic director. He's not sure. But he grew up in Louisville and understands what those two three-point shots that he made against Wichita State in the Final Four will mean for the rest of his life.
Henderson appreciates the last four years as much as anybody who has played in this program.
"That's the amazing thing," he said. "Going back all the Louisville years, I've been watching and being a fan of Terrence Williams, Taquan Dean and to be part of the winningest senior class and a national championship and another Final Four, that's just unbelievable. Incredible."
Hancock has his business degree in hand. He might go to work. He might play in Europe. He has not ruled out making a push toward the NBA. He'll make a difference somewhere.
"I'm a pretty lucky guy," he said. "My expectation was to win a national championship and now it's to win two national championships."
Then there is the irrepressible Mr. Smith, who will earn his degree in communications in May. Look for him in the pros. Or in a television career. Do not exclude any possibility.
Smith has likely made his way into the discussion of the five most beloved Louisville players of all time. Because of the way he has overachieved. Because of the way he has stretched Rick Pitino into embracing his frantic style of play. Because of the way he has fixed every flaw the critics have questioned in his game.
And because of the way he has won.
"If people could just say, 'Russ was here, Russ went to a Final Four, he won a championship and mention a lot of other things I've done,' I'd be happy with that," Smith said.